Mark Twain was fond of saying,
“When a cat jumps on a hot stove, he’ll never jump on a hot stove again. He’ll also never jump on a cold stove.”
Twain was sharing an example of over-generalization, something we humans do regularly. Making such generalizations can be a good thing: using one or a few facts to make a quick judgment saves time and effort. This allows us to assume characteristics of an entire group without studying every single element. We may save time and expand our knowledge beyond what we’ve experienced.
However, Over-generalization is a serious problem that’s more widespread than we imagine. Our minds are so hungry for the impression of knowledge and certainty that we often form broad, sweeping conclusions based on little real evidence. This is especially true when we’re under the influence of strong negative emotions. We rely on those faulty conclusions to make decisions and choices, often ending up with unsatisfactory results.
An example of over-generalization is a person who has never met any rich people, but watched a couple on TV a few times who appeared to be arrogant and unpleasant. He now assumes all rich people are arrogant and unpleasant.
Limiting beliefs is a form of overgeneralizing; these are beliefs that tell us something can’t be done when in reality, we have not even made the attempt. Our minds create artificial barriers that don’t exist, so we spend our lives acting as if they’re real. We feel insecure, miss opportunities and sell ourselves short because we have not ventured beyond those self-imposed barriers.
The tendency to overgeneralize is built into our brains – it helped our ancestors survive dangerous predators. Today we live in a more complicated world, where broad assumptions may mean missed opportunities.
But there’s a cure. Stop, look closer: is that person weaving across the street drunk or having a heart attack? Catch yourself when you assume you have correctly assessed a situation, then look closer for other alternatives.
Who knows what new ideas may come your way! Keep it up and over time new opportunities will come your way. You’ll also be happier and more confident knowing you can control your over-generalization tendencies.