Cognitive Distortions: Overgeneralizing

Overgeneralizing is a cognitive distortion that results in some pretty significant errors in thinking and has the potential to cause us a lot of unnecessary emotional pain. When we draw a faulty conclusion about something based on just one example, we are overgeneralizing. This can take many forms. We may, for example, predict the outcome of something based on just one previous instance of it: after interviewing for a job and not getting it, we might overgeneralize by thinking we’ll never get a job, and as a result feel quite hopeless. Or after interacting with someone from a different ethnic group, we may make broad assumptions about that group based on this one person's behavior. 

Overgeneralizing is ineffective mainly because it is usually highly inaccurate, and it is very limiting. Take another example, going out on a date and not being asked for a second date. Were we to use distorted thinking and overgeneralize, we may come to the conclusion that we will never successfully find a romantic partner.; because I wasn't asked on a second date, I will never be asked on a second date. If you really believe this, it might feel demoralizing, and perhaps devastating. Even worse, believing the distortion to be true, it would be unlikely that you would put forth any effort toward achieving your goal of romance. You might stop chatting casually with people you don’t know, delete your dating site profile, and even turn down future invitations of dates. Then your prediction would turn out to be true!

Usually when we experience setbacks, painful emotions go along with them. The stronger the emotion, the more likely it is to influence our thinking and result in us falling into believing a distortion. Luckily, usually all it takes to turn this pattern around is to examine our thinking in order to come to a more balanced, rational perspective. Cognitive therapy includes numerous techniques for investigating the validity of cognitive distortions such as overgeneralizing. One of the most effective is to ask yourself a series of investigative questions to help you think something through. The following questions may be helpful the next time you think you may be overgeneralizing:

What are the costs and benefits of this prediction?In other words, is it worth it to be so attached to this way of thinking? If this thought is costing you more than you are gaining, develop more effective, valid ways of reacting to the situation. 

What is the evidence for this prediction? Are you basing your conclusion on a lot of relevant data, or just one or two data points? Is there significant evidence against this particular thought? Is there a way to consider both the evidence against this thought in addition to the evidence supporting it when thinking about this situation?

Based on the current facts, do you think everyone would draw the same conclusion? If not, consider why not, and whether other conclusions might be more effective in you coping, or in achieving your desired outcome. If someone were handling this situation more effectively, what thoughts would support their more effective strategy in dealing with it?

Pick a friend. If this friend came to you and told you the same thing was happening to her, what would you say to her? Is it different than what you’re telling yourself right now? Consider why you might be giving your friend different advice than you are giving yourself, and whether this is helpful. Would you tell a friend what you are telling yourself? If not, why not?

Do you think you are relying on the actual evidence, or is it possible you are letting your feelings guide your thinking about this matter? Feelings have a tendency to color our thinking, altering the conclusions we make, and often exacerbating natural errors in thinking. 

Identify examples in which this conclusion is not true. Now identify some more…

Considering a number of alternate ways of thinking about things by asking ourselves a series  of investigative questions usually helps us to soften our attachment to cognitive distortions. The best way to use these questions is to first identify the situations in which we usually engage in this sort of distortion, then plan ahead by rehearsing these questions both before and during the situation. And don’t feel you have to be totally convinced for it to work. Just the act of taking on new ways of thinking can result in our emotions settling down.

Cognitive therapy is devoted to identifying similar patterns of thinking and helping people develop healthier thinking habits. Click here to learn more about cognitive therapy