Overgeneralization and Unnecessary Negative Emotions

Right now you spend a certain percentage of your life feeling negative emotions — nervous, frustrated, sad, angry, worried, whatever. I don't know what the percentage is. One percent of your waking hours? Five percent? Ten percent? Whatever the percentage, the information in this section will help you lower it. You can spend less of your time feeling badly. One way to do that is overgeneralize less often.

But before we accidentally throw the baby out with the bath water, I need to point out that your ability to generalize plays an important role in making you intelligent. The ability to generalize — to see patterns, to be able to predict what will happen, to see cause and effect — is extremely useful.

For example, back before doctors knew much about disease, Paracelsus noticed people working in mines all seemed to die of the same disease, later named Miner's Disease. His discovery was a generalization. It was accurate and helpful. Even in the face of tremendous opposition from the authorities, his observation was enough of a crack in the wall that it gave people a new way to look at disease and our present understanding has developed out of that original intelligent generalization.

Ignaz Semmelweis noticed when doctors helped deliver babies right after performing a dissection, the women tended to get childbed fever. This observation and generalization eventually led to the practice of using antiseptics.

Charles Darwin was able to see a general principle that governed the development of all life: Quite a generalization! And accurate. And useful. Much of our understanding of disease, antibiotic resistance, etc., has come from Darwin's original generalization.

We make generalizations all the time. If I notice I'm cranky the day after drinking alcohol, and then a couple weeks later I drink again and find I'm cranky the next day again, I might predict it the next time, and see if it's true. If I find a pattern there, I can decide to drink less often and therefore feel better more often. The ability to generalize has helped me make an intelligent decision.

Imagine someone who could not see patterns. Imagine someone who was unable predict effects from causes. They wouldn't be able to make intelligent decisions.

So one of the things about your brain that makes you so intelligent is your ability to generalize. The problem is, your brain is so good at generalizing — so wired to do it — sometimes you see patterns that don't exist. Generalizing makes people smart. Overgeneralizing makes people stupid. Prejudice, for example, is a form of overgeneralization. Sexual discrimination is a form of overgeneralizing. Labeling someone is an overgeneralization. No human being can be summed up by a label. Overgeneralizing makes things go badly more often, and creates unnecessary bad feelings too often.

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. And you 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 can 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 our pattern-seeking brain.

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 bad relationships in a row and they conclude all members of the opposite sex are idiots.

Everybody makes these kinds of mistakes, at least sometimes. 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 examples:

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."

Marshal Foch said, in 1911, "Airplanes are interesting toys, but they have no military value." Foch was an excellent, well-informed military leader.

"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.

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.

These were experts in their field, stating their opinions with too much confidence. And stating them publicly. It's a common human error, but you can compensate for that natural weakness by withholding your confidence until you have strong evidence to support your belief (if your belief has negative consequences).

What we're concerned about here is overgeneralizing bad stuff. That's what to look out for. Overgeneralizations can cause doubt funks, depression, giving up, hopelessness, failure, unnecessary suffering, anxiety, worry, and tension.

You are especially vulnerable to overgeneralizing in a way that makes things worse whenever something happens you didn't want to happen.

In a test of the Berkeley swim team, those who overgeneralized about their failure defeated themselves, deflating their drive and worsening their performance. They were given a failure experience and then tested again. Those who overgeneralized about the failure swam the next heat slower. They had defeated themselves with their own explanation. They had taken the wind out of their own sails by overgeneralizing. They explained their failure with things like, "I'm a slow swimmer" or "I'm a loser" rather than being more specific: "I swam that one too slow."

Overgeneralizing causes despair and hopelessness. The researcher Martin Seligman and his colleagues have discovered that the two most deadly assumptions you can make about a setback is: The cause of the setback is 1) permanent, or 2) pervasive. Permanence and pervasiveness both tend to be overgeneralizations — and dangerous ones at that.

Permanence says, "This is always going to be here," or "There's no way out of it." Pervasiveness says, "It has ruined everything," or "My life is over." These are overgeneralizations that evoke feelings of demoralization. They make you want to give up. That's usually not a very useful response to make to a setback.

Interestingly, one of the things Napoleon Hill hammers on in his books (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: Don't jump 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. And he asked Hill to do it.

So Napoleon Hill interviewed some of the most successful people of his day: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, William Wrigley, Jr., George Eastman — over five hundred of them. He found out 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 a 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."

When I was first learning to make public speeches, I had some embarrassing moments. But I also had many good moments. I made a typical mistake: I came up with 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. Overgeneralizing the bad very often makes things worse.

For example, I was looking for a store in the Yellow Pages. I have always hated looking stuff up because I "never" seemed to be able to find what I was looking for. 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 was a generalization.

You have to watch your "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.

So just because of this difference, I could easily get the impression that I "usually" have difficulty finding what I want in the Yellow Pages. And it would seem to me I have plenty of evidence for my conclusion — I remember plenty of times of frustration and I don't recall ever finding something easily.

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 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. Presumably, the stronger the emotional response, the stronger the memory.

Your brain has a natural tendency to generalize. Remember that. Remind yourself of it. When writing this article, 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. Then I reminded myself that my brain has a natural tendency to generalize.

We can derive a simple, practical method based on this information: When you feel doubtful or anxious or angry or frustrated or worried, look into your thinking and see if you can find an overgeneralization.

They are hard to detect because you assume whatever you think is true. Overgeneralizations 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, do you? You just feel bad.

But if you stop and look, you'll be able to find your own generalizations. The moment you discover an overgeneralization in your thinking — the moment you recognize a thought as an overgeneralization — your negative feelings start to diminish. The negative feelings were being generated by your mistaken assumption. When you recognize your mistake, your feelings change — immediately.
seeking evidence

Researchers have found that our brains automatically seek evidence to confirm rather than disconfirm an already existing conclusion — whether we have any stake in it or not.

When you allow yourself to come to a conclusion that you aren't very organized, for example, you'll see and remember everything you do that confirms your conclusion even if you don't want it to be true. And you'll ignore times you were well-organized because they don't confirm anything; they would disconfirm.

When you decide your spouse is a slob, you'll notice and remember (clearly) all the times your spouse acted like a slob, and you'll ignore or explain away all the times your spouse was neat and clean.

Coming to a conclusion prematurely alters your perception to some degree — at least it alters what you notice — so what you see agrees with your conclusions. It's a natural flaw of the human brain. And telling other people your conclusions makes it even worse.

In an experiment, people were asked to determine the length of a line. One group was told to decide it in their heads; another group was told to write it on a Magic Pad (pads for children that erase what you write when you lift up the top sheet) and then erase it before anyone saw it; and a third group was told to write their conclusions on a piece of paper, sign it, and give it to the researcher.

Then the subjects were given information indicating their first conclusion was wrong. And they were given an opportunity to change their decision. Those who decided in their heads changed their conclusions the easiest; those who wrote it on the Magic Pad were more reluctant to change their minds; and those who declared their conclusions publicly remained convinced their first conclusion was correct.

Their feeling of certainty was an illusion; it wasn't related to their conclusion's accuracy. It was being influenced by another factor — how publicly they had made their conclusions.

Be careful about coming to conclusions too quickly in public. Slow yourself down before you conclude anything. Remind yourself that your feeling of certainty might not mean anything. It'll allow you to place less confidence in your conclusions. When your conclusion is giving you negative feelings, your skepticism can make you feel better and act more sanely.

Confucius said wisdom was "when you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it."

When I was making cold calls for radio interviews, I often used this technique. Here's what I found. I made about fifteen calls for every interview I landed. When I called, I usually left a voice mail. They'd call back and grill me.

When I first started doing it, this made me feel bad. So I looked into my thinking to find an overgeneralization. These are some of the thoughts I wrote down:

"This is too hard."
"I'm never going to make it."
"Nobody is interested."
"Nobody cares about improving their lives."
"My book isn't marketable."
"I can't take the strain."

I slowed myself down and immediately realized these conclusions weren't necessarily true. My negative feelings subsided and my success rate improved (probably because I came across better because I was in a better mood).

When I first started public speaking, I had to do the same thing. My explanation for why I couldn't be a public speaker was permanence. "I'm constitutionally shy, always have been, always will be."

I was overgeneralizing. I thought, "I'm a shy person" rather than "I'm shy in certain circumstances."

Since I was nineteen, I had wanted to give public speeches, but I knew I couldn't. Some people can, I thought, and some can't. I was one who couldn't. That's a permanent explanation. That's an overgeneralization. And when you make a conclusion like that, you see lots of evidence "proving" your conclusion is true.

Pessimistic assumptions change the way you feel which changes the way you perceive the world to match your assumption. You are less likely to see contradictory evidence.

I like to read true-life survival stories. It is interesting to me to see what people do in their minds that helps them make it out alive. When people survive life-threatening situations, one common denominator is they did not overgeneralize. They didn't decide it was hopeless. They didn't say "Nothing has worked yet, so nothing will ever work." They retained a glimmer of uncertainty about their own pessimistic assumptions, and kept trying, and that is what saved them.

It would be equally instructive to know what went through the minds of those who didn't survive. No doubt they made pessimistic overgeneralizations that prevented them from taking actions that would have saved them. They defeated themselves, I would bet, in their own minds. And so do we all in so many ways if we're not careful.
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." In this restaurant, we had a waiter named Scott. One day a couple came in and sat in Scott's section and ordered two Prime Rib sandwiches.

Scott was very busy this day and didn't give the couple very good service. And they tipped him poorly.

Scott overgeneralized. He decided, based on this single instance, that this couple was "cheap." He talked it up and grumbled about it to everyone who would listen. He made his conclusion public.

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 serves as a self-fulfilling prophesy.

From then on, when that couple came in, no matter whose section they sat in, Scott would go talk to that 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 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. 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.

The real trick is to keep reminding yourself to catch yourself over a period of time. It won't work to remember it for a week and then forget about it. Extended effort is what is required. Here are some ideas to help you remember over time:

1. Ask your spouse or children to catch you. We often say our overgeneralizations out loud, and children, especially, will work overtime to catch you doing something wrong. Use that force for good.

2. Put a message on your screen saver using the Scrolling Marquee.

3. Get an alarm clock that wakes you up by playing a cassette tape. Record a message about overgeneralizing and it will remind you first thing every morning.

4. Write OVERGENERALIZING on a card and carry it with you.

5. Post a note on your bathroom mirror.

The possibilities are endless. But the principle is important: Use a system to remember to catch yourself overgeneralizing again and again over a period of time, and your tendency to overgeneralize will dwindle. As it does, you'll experience negative feelings less often and less intensely. In other words, you'll feel good more often. And who doesn't want that?

You'll also be more persistent, your motivation level will remain higher, and you'll be healthier.

You may now realize this would be a great thing to change in your thinking. But then you might think, "I'll never follow through on it — I'm not persistent enough about stuff like that." That is your first overgeneralization to question and you're on your way.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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