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Overgeneralization

In Therapy

Overgeneralization occurs when a child sees single negative events and uses them to make wide, sweeping generalizations.

Overgeneralization is an easy Thinking Error to commit because it’s a simple way to categorize things.

  • A child gets in trouble at school once and thinks that their whole life is going to be trouble from here on out.
  • A child’s friend is too busy to hang out one night, and the child generalizes that night alone to her entire life: she is always lonely, and she can never count on her friends.
  • A neglected child sees how well her friend’s family gets along and generalizes that to all families but her own.
  • A child takes a single difficult math test and decides that all math tests must be difficult.

In Critical Thinking

Overgeneralization is a textbook manifestation of the hasty generalization fallacy. The hasty generalization occurs when somebody makes a broad general claim based on insufficient evidence. This is a problem for clear thinking because broad generalizations should only be made after a good amount of data has been surveyed. A generalization along the lines of “All teenage girls like pink” cannot be made until one surveys all teenage girls in the world. Even a less restrictive generalization, “Most teenage girls like pink,” requires a large number of teenage girls to be surveyed. One cannot ask twenty teenage girls, find that eighteen of them like pink, and then generalize to all teenage girls in the entire world.

Hasty generalization is basically failed induction. Induction is the process by which the scientific method works; it is essentially a method to reason from specific instances to wider, more general rules. A large sample of data is collected, and the conclusions drawn from that data (if any) are the “general rules.” For example, cell theory in science states cells are the basic unit of structure in all life. We base this general statement on the collected observations of biologist throughought history: all life we have studied to date is made of cells. Cell theory was not formulated after a dozen organisms were surveyed; it took many and more before scientists were ready to make that generalization.

Some examples of the hasty generalization are:

  • A man sees a single ballet wherein all the dancers are women. He decides based on this one show that all ballet dancers are women.
  • A woman is unsuccessful in love. Every guy she’s ever dated (all fifteen of them) turned out to be a jerk. She decides that all men (all 3.3 billion of them)  must be jerks.
  • A man owns a Ford truck. It breaks down on him. A friend of his reports that he once had a Ford that also broke down. The two men reason that all Fords must be unreliable, shoddy vehicles.
  • A woman visits a new doctor. He is rather rude to her and isn’t much help at all. She goes to get a second opinion and has to wait for a long time before she is seen. She decides that all doctors are shoddy and she won’t be visiting them anymore unless she’s absolutely has to.

Bridging the Gap

When a child overgeneralizes, she is positing a general negative pattern based on, quite often, only a single piece of evidence for her negative viewpoint. It’s a quick leap, a cognitive shortcut, that allows her to forego thinking too deeply about a situation and instead make a broad, sweeping statement without really looking at the whole picture. She is making a hasty generalization about herself, her social or home life, or anything else that she finds frustrating or disappointing.

I disappointed my mom today [the single negative data point]. I’m just a total disappointment [the hasty generalization].

Overgeneralization is a quick and easy way to an untrue belief. The world is too big to make such wide statements lightly or quickly, and a child that makes hasty generalizations about her personal life is sure to wind up more disappointed, more frustrated, and more negative than she was before. A single data point isn’t good enough to make her whole life negative, and it isn’t good enough to cement any other generalizations in the real world, either.

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