Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
A Global Conclusion Based on a Specific Example
Overgeneralizing is a common faulty thinking pattern where we draw a global conclusion about something based on a specific example. To use a funny anecdote, we know a few people who were considering moving to Seattle and came to visit for a weekend in the summer. The weather was perfect the whole time they were there, and based on that isolated data point they privately determined that all those stories about Seattle being rainy were exaggerated or maybe just flat out wrong since their own immediate experience contradicted them. They boldly moved to Seattle, stories of gloominess be damned, and of course quickly discovered the truth. Despite those summer outliers the truth is it rains a lot in Seattle.
Overgeneralizing Has an Adaptive Side
Like all the faulty thinking patterns, overgeneralizing has its useful, adaptive side. We’re forced to navigate a complex, ever changing world and don’t have every shred of information neatly categorized or even available. A specific experience often does give us vital information about the general attributes around it and the capacity to make the cognitive jump from a specific experience to a general ‘rule’ can be a great strength in better understanding the world and deciding upon appropriate behaviors.
But any scientist will tell you it’s dangerous to draw firm conclusions from a limited set of data points because those data points might be outliers, they might not be indicative of the qualities of the subject you’re studying at all. They might be the exception to the rule rather than evidence of the rule.
Overgeneralizing can cause a lot of unnecessary psychic distress and cause a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy since our behavior is largely determined by our thoughts and feelings, regardless of whether those thoughts and feelings are objectively valid or not. When we take something to be globally ‘true’ we act accordingly, which is why catching overgeneralizing in the moment and asking ourselves whether we have enough data to justify our conclusion can open up new and better doors for behavior.