Robert F. Mullen, PhD
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Cognitive Distortion #7: Overgeneralization
When we engage In this cognitive distortion, we draw broad conclusions or make statements about something or someone unsupported by the available evidence. We make blanket claims that can’t be proven or disproven. Everyone knows Suzie is a liar. To imply that everyone thinks Suzie is a liar is an exaggeration without consensus. A few colleagues may share our opinion, but not the whole world. We overgeneralize when we base our conclusions on one or two pieces of evidence while ignoring anything to the contrary.
Overgeneralization supports our negative self-beliefs and image. If someone rejects us, we assume everyone will find us undesirable. Because we persuade ourselves it is unlikely anyone is interested in getting to know us, we avoid situations where that might occur. That aggravates our SAD-induced fears of intimacy and avoidance of social situations.
Space is Limited
Our automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) are usually overgeneralizations. “No one will like me.” “I’m a failure.” “She called me stupid.” “Everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” These self-defeating thoughts are based on our fears and anxieties rather than the available evidence. An example of overgeneralization would be the false assumption that, because you failed a test, you will never be able to pass the course.
We justify our prejudices by overgeneralizing. One bad apple in a group means everyone in the group is rotten. We make broad and inaccurate assumptions about that group based on this one person’s behavior. Overgeneralized thinking can cause us to wrongly judge entire groups of people, which is harmful to self and society.
This distortion inevitably leads to avoidance, limiting our willingness to experience things because we have self-prophesied what will happen based on it happening before. Similar to Filtering, where we ignore the positive and dwell on the negative, and Polarized Thinking, where we see things in black or white, overgeneralization is based on assuming the worst. Keywords that support overgeneralization include all, every, none, never, always, everybody, and nobody. See the section on The Destructive Nature of Negative Words in Chapter Nine. Overgeneralization often tends to be self-fulfilling prophecy and is associated with generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and OCD.
The rational response to overgeneralization is to (1) consider the accuracy of the statement and consider the available evidence, and (2) identify the situation, fears, and ANTs that compel the need to cognitively distort in the first place.
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