Updated: Jun 12, 2019
“All generalizations are false – including this one.” ~Mark Twain
Yes, even this sentence is a generalization!
Definition: A generalization is taking one or a few facts and making a broader, more universal statement, reasoning from detailed facts to general principles.
In psychology, it’s the transfer of a response learned to one stimulus to a similar stimulus.
Generalization occurs when one specific experience represents a whole class of experiences.
Generalization also occurs when one is generalized to the whole.
When Generalizations Work
Scientists try to make generalizations based on research — the more data they have, the more accurate the generalization. There is nothing wrong with this.
Generalizations make life understandable and -hopefully – more predictable.
They are helpful for structuring and clustering the world – such as all dogs are chasing deer – or in terms of catastrophes like earthquakes, hurricanes, etc. During a catastrophe, you could give a warning due to parameters found in your research.
This type of generalization helps people to deal with the catastrophe: “If you know about it – you can prepare for it.”
Here’s another example, an easy one - most of us know what a car is.
Generally speaking: it has four wheels; you have been carried in or driven one; and despite the various different models that exist, when you come across one, you know what it is.
So in that sense, generalization also assists us.
When Generalizations Don’t Work
But it does not work that way always, or in all cases.
For example, you can’t say Men are always blank or women are always blank – even if we would like to think that way. Even if we have been hurt by one man or one woman acting in the way we’ve described, it is not helpful or truthful to apply the statement to all men or all women.
While it seems to make life easier to view people or situations by generalizing, it can actually be more complicated, because if we form stereotypes out of it - they can be wrong and harmful.
Stereotypes: Set ideas that people have about what someone or something is like, especially ideas that are wrong.
These are what mislead people.
Generalizations can also apply to experiences. Let’s say you go to a trendy restaurant and the service is slow, the food is cold, and the atmosphere is noisy. You leave disappointed in your night out. Yet you can’t make a general conclusion that all restaurants should be avoided. But this is what people will often do. They are afraid to repeat a bad experience next time, so they take one type of experience and make it true for all experiences of the same type.
Generalizations of this kind are known in NLP as universal quantifiers and involve the use of words such as all, never, always, everyone and no-one.
Examples might be:
“Women always say that”;
“All men ever think about is sex”;
“Politicians are all corrupt”;
“Americans think they know it all”;
More considered thinking would provide better alternatives, but these words eliminate better choices.
When they are analyzed, it is obviously clear that such generalizations are untrue. Yet they can be the cause of great bitterness and division between individuals and in society generally.
If you catch yourself speaking or thinking in this way, pause for a moment and think about it.
Not each and every person is the same. Of course they’re not. Each of us is unique.
And we all know there is this one man or one woman that can teach you that not all men or women are the same. At least your heart knows.
But - If you hold on to your generalizations, you may never find them!
Sometimes it seems easier, because you knew what you would get. And if it goes wrong, you could blame someone else.
You don’t have to focus on yourself and how you could have done better.
You don’t have to check if you should have changed something.
You don’t have to learn something in a specific context, like a relationship.
Instead you take the easy route and blame others.
But it takes two to tango.
And the fascinating thing is: we are all unique individuals with certain strengths and weaknesses. We do have a lot in common with others – we are human beings - but sometimes we don’t even behave like human beings.
So, if you deal with people it is sometimes hard to know how they will behave, or why they behaved in a certain way.
Often in coaching, questions arise as people think about a new concept. Below are some questions I have helped people work through in the area of generalizing.
“How do you justify jumping from a few instances to a generalization?”
It is not the question of justifying it – it is the question of why it happened. This is often linked to situations or experiences that were similar. They may be have been hurtful. People maybe didn’t know how to handle them or deal with them. And it also feels safe to go with a generalization because then you don’t have to think or deal with something new or different.
“How do I deal with people who use generalizations and stereotypes? How do I get rid of generalizations?”
Think about what you are generalizing and then question the person or yourself in this way:
Always? Never? Every?
What stops you? What would happen if you do?
Imagine you could; what then?
Is it always like this?For example – are all men really like that?
Do you know anybody who is different? If so, then is that really true that all men are blank?
What about me?
Consider how you might be limiting the alternatives that are open to you. Think carefully about what is possible and what is impossible.
“So is it best to stick with specifics and avoid generalizations?”
No, in some instances. Sometimes, they are helpful in science and a few other fields whenever you have to predict something.
And yes, avoid them while dealing with people. They impoverish our thinking and limit our options about future scenarios. The same things don’t necessarily happen always and again – unless we think about them that way. And they could be stereotypes leading to harmful, wrong, and arrogant thinking.
And yes, because it’s best to avoid generalizations when dealing with your future because you can’t expect the future experience to be a certain way just because it was like that in a former experiences.
Different folks – different strokes. Generalizations can block you in experiencing something new and exciting in your life. They can hold you from learning and developing.
If you deal with people, look for their strengths and their uniqueness. Stay open and curious – so that the magic can happen.
And be surprised! You might miss interesting, uplifting conversations, experiences and people because you used generalizations or stereotypes instead of seeing each for the wonderful and unique things they could be.