This is one of "22
virus definitions" (thought-mistakes that cause ineffectiveness
and unnecessary negative emotions).
(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.
Theres 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
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
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 Im 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 brains ability to complete a pattern with minimal
clues. It has been exceedingly difficult to create computers
that can do it, and they still arent 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
But this amazing ability also sometimes
causes us to see patterns that dont really exist. We see
a man in the moon. We see a horse in the clouds. We see the big
dipper, the little dipper, Orions 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 dont actually
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 brains amazing ability
to see a pattern with minimal clues, and 2) our brains
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 youre 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. Youve gone too far.
2. Generalizing from too few instances.
Researchers have discovered that people dont 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. Thats overgeneralization, and it
causes unnecessary suffering.
Everybody makes these kinds of mistakes.
Even the experts. Our brains are so ready and willing to generalize,
its inevitable were 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 isnt likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S.
These were experts in their field, stating
their opinions with too much confidence. Its 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, Were
not going to make it, that thought is wrong because there
is still a chance theyll make it, so theres no justification
for certainty about doom. Its even more of a mistake because
he is less likely to survive thinking that way.
Many times you will realize you dont
know. Thats okay. In fact, finding yourself with greater
uncertainty is good. When you dont know, your mind is open.
If you decide you know and youre wrong, you shut your mind
to whats 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 cant do anything about it and it isnt
going to change on its own either. Permanence is almost always
an overgeneralization and a dangerous one at that if it
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
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 didnt bother us any more. Why?
Because it was temporary.
Permanence says, This is always going
to be here, or Theres no way out of it.
Its an overgeneralization that evokes feelings of demoralization.
It makes you want to give up. Thats 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. Its a deadly overgeneralization.
It stops action. It kills motivation. It destroys dreams. Dont
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
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 isnt permanent, make sure
you dont 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
didnt realize theyve come up with a science of determination.
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 wasnt 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 givaway that
youre 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,
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 dont recall
many instances where I found something easily. What was there
Stressful moments are more memorable than
emotionally-flat moments, and because of that, we can overgeneralize
falsely see a negative pattern that doesnt really
exist. Its an illusion caused by the way our brains selectively
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.
Lets 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 isnt
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 Im 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 wasnt. 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
dont really know anything and Im 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, thats
a demoralizing overgeneralization. When you say, Thats
just my luck, ditto. These presume a permanence. They are
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
youd think of is all the times you washed the dishes! But
when you say something like that to yourself, you dont
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 Scotts section (one of the waiters)
and ordered Prime Rib sandwiches.
Scott was very busy that day and didnt
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 Scotts section again.
And again, they ordered two Prime Rib sandwiches.
This time Scott wasnt very busy,
but since he already knew they werent 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
Ive 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
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, Ill
never follow through on it Im not persistent enough
about stuff like that. So there you have your first overgeneralization
See the complete list of definitions: The 22 Virus Definitions.