Thinking Traps IX: Overgeneralisation

This is the last post on the series of Thinking Traps. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these! If you want to know more about these traps, I suggest researching and reading about Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.


Overgeneralisation – Not seeing the trees for the forest

“I always come last, I’m a failure!”

“Nothing ever goes my way!”

Everyone can’t stand me!”

“You can’t trust, anyone!”

Humans are like clay, able to fit the mould of whichever environment we are raised in. From the driest desert to the coldest tundra. From the remotest island to the busiest city. Humans are everywhere. We are everywhere for a simple reason – we are adaptable – good at learning. Learning means working out rules for what works, seeing patterns, forming good habits.

Not that we are aware of all these rules. Most of these rules are implicitly coded in our minds. Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman described this in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. Slow thinking is what we do when we think we’re deliberately thinking. Like recalling what you did yesterday or remembering the name of the capital of Russia. We rarely slow think. Fast thinking is implicit: the quick, messy, rules-of-thumb that we do semi-consciously. We hardly know we are thinking when we are fast-thinking, but we are, and these thoughts make up most of our thought processes.

What happens when fast-thinking rules are unhelpful or even harmful? Many psychological disorders result from habitual, unhelpful, fast thinking. Take social anxiety disorder. People with this disorder often massively overestimate the likelihood that others are thinking negatively about them. Often, people with this disorder have experienced some negative social experience(s) early and life which have made them expect further negative experiences. They have taken these early events and Overgeneralised them – applied them in an exaggerated manner.

Overgeneralisation is not seeing the trees for the forest. I’ve failed 7 times and succeeded twice – I’m a failure. My last two relationships ended in heartbreak – I’m unlovable. Our fast-thinking mind will take a few key experiences and turn them into gospel statements of truth.

“What’s wrong with doing that? It’s just reality”. Actually, it’s not just reality, it’s a lazy short cut. Reality has nuance, it is messy. Its is rarely black and white. If reality is what you’re after, you will have to use slow, deliberate thinking. When we do this, overgeneralisation melts away and we see reality more clearly, in all its chaotic, florid glory.

Overgeneralisation cages us into the unhappy experiences of the past. By predicting that things will be the same as they were, history repeats. The adaptive animal becomes the maladaptive animal. We filter out the good and are left with the same old overgeneralised schemas.

So start challenging your thoughts! Bad habits are sticky; they don’t want to die. Fast thinking is easy – even when it is unhelpful and irrational. Slow thinking is hard – even when is realistic and positive. All thinking habits can change.

Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.
Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.
Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.
Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.
Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

— Chinese proverb, author unknown

One thought on “Thinking Traps IX: Overgeneralisation”

Speak Your Mind


Suite C5
102-106 Boyce Rd
Maroubra Junction, NSW 2035
(02) 8958 2585

Have Questions?
Send a Message!

By submitting this form via this web portal, you acknowledge and accept the risks of communicating your health information via this unencrypted email and electronic messaging and wish to continue despite those risks. By clicking "Yes, I want to submit this form" you agree to hold Brighter Vision harmless for unauthorized use, disclosure, or access of your protected health information sent via this electronic means.