A common (and therefore important) thought-mistake is overgeneralizing. It is necessary to generalize — to see patterns that help you make your way through the world — but overgeneralization can make you feel miserable unnecessarily.
There’s more. Because of the way our brains are constructed, we make certain kinds of mistakes, like overgeneralization. These are naturally-occurring mistakes, the kind of errors every brain is prone to make. In a way, the “mistakes” are simply side-effects of a well-functioning, incredibly capable brain.
Researchers at Duke University Medical Center hooked people up to a high-resolution functional MRI machine (to track the blood flow in the brain) and flashed pictures in front of them. The pictures were of either a square or a circle. They were asked to push the button in their right hand when they saw a square, and push the button in their left hand for a circle.
The squares and circles were presented in a random order, but of course short patterns would sometimes emerge — a string of all squares, for example, or alternation between a square and a circle for several cycles.
Their brains reacted with extra blood flow when one of these short patterns ended. In other words, their brains automatically detected and generalized patterns, and very quickly. They were given no reward for detecting patterns. They were not asked to detect patterns. In fact, they were told the pictures would be flashed randomly. Yet even so, without any effort on their part, their brains automatically saw patterns in the random events and generalized — began to expect what the next picture would be. In previous similar studies testing their reaction time, the volunteers had a slower reaction time when an expected pattern was broken.
Your brain is predisposed to generalize. It automatically tries to see patterns without any conscious participation or effort on your part.
By and large, our ability to generalize is a good thing. Many positive results have come from it. For example, Ignaz Semmelweis noticed when doctors performed a dissection and then assisted in a birth, the women had a tendency to get childbed fever. He was able to detect a pattern, to make a generalization, and his ability to generalize led to the practice of using antiseptics and sterilization, saving millions of unnecessary deaths over time.
Charles Darwin saw a pattern that governs the evolution of all life on earth. Quite a generalization! From that single generalization, new understandings about diseases were discovered that greatly improved the effectiveness of doctors. In fact, whole new sciences have issued from that single generalization.
What I’m trying to say is: The mistakes our brains tend to make (like overgeneralizing) are the inevitable by-products of our great intelligence.
Your ability to recognize a face comes from your brain’s ability to complete a pattern with minimal clues. It has been exceedingly difficult to create computers that can do it, and they still aren’t as good at it as you are on a bad day without even trying. Your brain recognizes faces without any effort on your part. Your brain is so good at completing a pattern that, even in dim light — even if you can only see half of the face — you recognize immediately who it is.
But this amazing ability also sometimes causes us to see patterns that don’t really exist. We see a man in the moon. We see a horse in the clouds. We see the big dipper, the little dipper, Orion’s belt. Our brains can take the most scant clues and see a pattern, without us making even the smallest effort to do so.
But especially given our brains’ bias toward negativity, we also see patterns that create pessimism, cynicism, and defeatism — patterns our brains have created out of minimal clues — patterns that don’t actually exist.
The woman I used to work with who had two failed marriages concluded, “All men are pigs.” From only two examples, she created a generalization that included three billion men! Her cynicism, her unwillingness to allow any men to get close to her, was the side-effect of two common mistakes our brains tend to make: 1) the brain’s amazing ability to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) our brain’s tendency to look for evidence that confirms an already-existing conclusion. In other words, your brain tends to overgeneralize and then the world seems to prove you’re right about it.
The two primary mistakes that turn generalizations into overgeneralizations are:
1. Holding the generalization as a fact rather than an hypothesis. Any generalization you make is a guess. You will have some degree of certainty about your guess — you can be quite certain your guess is correct, you can be very uncertain about your guess, or anywhere in between. When you have more certainty about your generalization than the facts justify, it is an overgeneralization. You’ve gone too far.
2. Generalizing from too few instances. Researchers have discovered that people don’t have a very accurate sense of what “chance sequences” look like. People expect sequences of coin flips, for example, to alternate more than they actually do. So truly random sequences can often look like a pattern to us.
In a series of twenty coin tosses, you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting four heads in a row; you have a twenty-five percent chance of getting five in a row; you have a ten percent chance of getting six in a row! And yet we sometimes predict a pattern from only one or two incidents — a person has two mishaps in one afternoon and concludes, “Everything is going wrong today. That’s overgeneralization, and it causes unnecessary suffering.
Everybody makes these kinds of mistakes. Even the experts. Our brains are so ready and willing to generalize, it’s inevitable we’re going to go overboard now and then and overgeneralize. Here are a few historical examples:
Marshal Foch, a competent, well-informed military leader, said in 1911, “Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value.”On October 16th, 1929, the economist Irving Fisher said, “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” The stock market crash that started the Great Depression happened two weeks later.
“Whatever happens,” said Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, “the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” He said this on December 4, 1941. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor three days later.
In 1958, Business Week printed this: “With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.”
These were experts in their field, stating their opinions with too much confidence. It’s a common human error. From now on and for the rest of your life, be suspicious of your feelings of certainty — about your overgeneralizations or about any explanations of setbacks.
In the book, Dying of Embarrassment, I found an interesting piece of information. People with a social phobia — people who find it very difficult to tolerate dealing with a social situation — make two particular kinds of assumptions. They assume they are very likely to meet disapproval in the social situation, and they assume that the consequences of that disapproval will be really bad. But their assumptions are exaggerated. Their predictions are mistaken. Their projections of the future are distorted. They exaggerate the “social danger.” They exaggerate the threat, probably because they explained past social setbacks with exaggerations. So now they make what are called “probability distortions” and “severity distortions” and these make them far more uptight and nervous than the reality of the situation merits or deserves.
To assume something is going to turn out badly, especially, is putting too much confidence in a guess — a guess that makes you ineffective and unhappy.
When someone after a shipwreck says, “We’re not going to make it,” that thought is wrong because there is still a chance they’ll make it, so there’s no justification for certainty about doom. It’s even more of a mistake because he is less likely to survive thinking that way.
Many times you will realize you don’t know. That’s okay. In fact, finding yourself with greater uncertainty is good. When you don’t know, your mind is open. If you decide you know and you’re wrong, you shut your mind to what’s really going on.
When you scan your thoughts looking for “viruses,” overgeneralizations should be one of the first things you look for.
The researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues have discovered that the most deadly assumption you can make about the cause of a setback is: The cause is permanent, meaning that you can’t do anything about it and it isn’t going to change on its own either. Permanence is almost always an overgeneralization — and a dangerous one at that if it isn’t true.
Whether you think of something as temporary or permanent changes your feelings drastically. I remember once Klassy and I were ready for four days of total peace and quiet at the Sands Resort at the coast. The first morning we were awakened at 7:30 AM by what sounded like a hundred people laughing and partying. People were stomping up and down the ceiling above us.
We were both bothered by this. We went down to the office and said, “The people above us are making lots of noise.”
“What unit number are you in?” asked the woman at the desk.
“Well, if it makes you feel any better, that party is leaving today. Checkout time is noon. And the room is not rented for the next few days.”
We went back to the room and the noises were still there but they didn’t bother us any more. Why? Because it was temporary.
Permanence says, “This is always going to be here,” or “There’s no way out of it.” It’s an overgeneralization that evokes feelings of demoralization. It makes you want to give up. That’s not a helpful response to make to a setback.
Interestingly, one of the things Napoleon Hill hammers on in his books (The Law of Success, Think and Grow Rich, and Success Through A Positive Mental Attitude) is that failure is only temporary defeat.
Hill and Seligman are trying to get their readers to do the same thing: Avoid jumping to the conclusion that this setback is permanent. It’s a deadly overgeneralization. It stops action. It kills motivation. It destroys dreams. Don’t ever do it again!
Napoleon Hill was commissioned by the richest man in the world at the time — Andrew Carnegie — to write a philosophy of success. Carnegie thought it was a shame that each person had to figure out what it takes to succeed by trial and error, only to have that accumulated know-how die with them. He thought it should be written down. Carnegie asked Hill to do it.
So Napoleon Hill interviewed the most famous wealthy people of his day: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, William Wrigley, Jr., George Eastman — over five hundred of them. He discovered how they succeeded and shared his findings in his books.
Hill was famous in his day, and well-respected. President Woodrow Wilson put Hill on his staff as an advisor during World War I. Hill also served as an advisor to President Franklin D. Roosevelt throughout most of the Depression. It was Napoleon Hill who came up with, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
In all his books, the principle he hammered on more than any other was: Think of a “failure” as merely “temporary defeat.” Or, as Seligman might put it: If the cause of the setback isn’t permanent, make sure you don’t assume it is.
If you can resist overgeneralizing bad things, if you can restrain yourself from deciding the cause of a setback is permanent, you will be healthier, happier, and more successful. An undiscourageable explanatory style moves you toward accomplishment, success, courage, determination, and persistence. It moves you closer to wins and health and happiness. Researchers like Seligman were studying depression, but they didn’t realize they’ve come up with a science of determination.
overgeneralizing influences your memory
When I was first learning to make public presentations, I had more than one embarrassing moment, but I also had many good moments. At first I made an overgeneralization that blocked out the good moments — I said to myself, “I get too nervous.” And that thought made me more nervous than I needed to be, creating still more embarrassing moments than I would have had otherwise.
It was an overgeneralization because much of the time, in fact, most of the time, I wasn’t too nervous. But by overgeneralizing, I increased my dread of speaking unnecessarily. Overgeneralizing the bad very often makes things worse.
For example, I was looking for a store in the Yellow Pages. I have always hated using the Yellow Pages because I “never” seemed to be able to find what I was looking for. This time I wanted to find a mall so I looked under “mall.” It said to look under “department stores” or “outlets.” I got a headache. Then I realized my thought was, “I always have trouble finding stuff in the Yellow Pages.”
The word always is a dead giveaway that you’re probably overgeneralizing.
You have to be careful about the “evidence” for your generalizations. Our memories can be skewed merely because some things naturally make more of an impression than others. If I look something up in the Yellow Pages and find it right away, what is there to remember? But if I search and search and get frustrated and throw the phone book at the wall, it is very memorable. This is part of the “negative bias” of reality, remember?
So just because of this difference, if I searched my own memory, I would get the impression that I “usually” have difficulty finding what I want in the Yellow Pages, even if most of the time I found what I was looking for easily. And it would seem to me I have good evidence for my conclusion — I remember plenty of times of frustration and I don’t recall many instances where I found something easily. What was there to remember?
Stressful moments are more memorable than emotionally-flat moments, and because of that, we can overgeneralize — falsely see a negative pattern that doesn’t really exist. It’s an illusion caused by the way our brains selectively store memories.
An interesting experiment clarifies this point. At the University of California, researchers showed subjects two narrated slide shows. One was a boring account of a boy visiting a hospital and watching the medical staff preparing for a surgical procedure. The other one showed the boy getting run over by a car and getting emergency care.
Before watching the film, half the people were given a beta blocker — a drug that blocks two stress hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline. The other half were given a pill containing no active ingredients of any kind (a placebo).
A week later, everyone took a test to find out how much of the slide shows they remembered. They all remembered everything equally, except the stressful parts. The ones who got the placebo remembered the traumatic parts of the story with greater clarity than the ones who took the beta blocker. Interesting, eh? In other words, because of the stress hormones, stressful events are naturally more memorable.
In Consumer Reports on Health, they had this to say about the experiment:
Mundane happenings can be difficult to remember. But upsetting events are often hard to forget...A separate, more durable system for storing emotionally charged memories has survival value, the researchers pointed out, enabling animals to remember and avoid threatening situations.
Let’s see if we can recap this point. 1) stressful events are more memorable because they are more dramatic and noticeable — they stick out, 2) the brain itself records stressful events differently so you remember them better, and 3) you see patterns at the drop of a hat — your brain can (and often does) see a pattern where there really isn’t one.
These three combine into one of the most common sources of bad feelings: Overgeneralizations. When writing this chapter, I was thinking up examples, one after the other, and writing them down. Then I started writing one down but I stopped because it was a stupid example. I crumpled it up and thought, “Maybe I’m out of good examples.”
See what I did? I overgeneralized from a single example of failure. I remember doing that when my first book had just been published and I went around to the local bookstores to ask them to carry it. Most bookstore owners said yes. I went around a few weeks later to see if my book was on their shelves and in one of the major bookstores, it wasn’t. The thoughts zipping through my head at the time were, “This is going to be harder than I thought. Maybe I was being naive. Maybe I don’t really know anything and I’m just fooling myself.” I overgeneralized and felt dejected.
Overgeneralizations are extremely common. I was going to say “everybody does it all the time” but thought that is probably an overgeneralization. When something bad happens and you say, “It figures,” that’s a demoralizing overgeneralization. When you say, “That’s just my luck,” ditto. These presume a permanence. They are overgeneralizations.
Overgeneralizations are hard to detect because you assume whatever you think is true. They would be easy to detect if someone was angry at you and said something like, “You never wash the dishes.” The first thing you’d think of is all the times you washed the dishes! But when you say something like that to yourself, you don’t question it. You just feel bad.
the grinder people
When I was young, I worked in a restaurant that served Prime Rib sandwiches, which for some reason, in the restaurant business they call “grinders.” One day a couple came in and sat in Scott’s section (one of the waiters) and ordered Prime Rib sandwiches.
Scott was very busy that day and didn’t give the couple very good service. They tipped him poorly.
Scott decided, based on this single instance, that this couple was “cheap.” He overgeneralized. He saw a pattern in a single instance. He talked it up and grumbled about it to everyone who would listen (making his hasty conclusion public and harder to change).
As it turns out, a few days later, the same couple came in and landed in Scott’s section again. And again, they ordered two Prime Rib sandwiches.
This time Scott wasn’t very busy, but since he already “knew” they weren’t going to tip him much, he gave them lousy service, and they proved him right: They tipped him poorly again. This is one of the problems with overgeneralizing. It often becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
From then on, when that couple came in, no matter whose section they sat in, Scott would go talk to their waiter: “See those two people? Those are the Grinder People I’ve been telling you about!” And that waiter would then give them lousy service, and they tipped badly.
But they kept coming in. They must have really loved those Prime Rib sandwiches!
One day they sat in my section. I had been reading about this stuff and decided to avoid overgeneralizing and gave them great service. And what do you know? They tipped me really well!
After that, they asked for my section when they came in. I served them many times and they always tipped me well.
The tendency to overgeneralize is built into our brains. But there is a cure for it. The cure is simple: Catch yourself overgeneralizing. Over and over and over. Keep it up and your tendency will gradually diminish.
You may now realize this would be a great thing to change in your thinking. But then you think, “I’ll never follow through on it — I’m not persistent enough about stuff like that.” So there you have your first overgeneralization to question.
See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.