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A generalization is when we apply a certain characteristic to a large group. For example, if we say “All olives taste bad” we are taking the characteristic of ‘tasting bad’ and applying it to all olives. A generalization is often considered to have no exceptions. If all olives taste bad, then that means there isn’t a single olive that tastes good. This belief may be helpful because if you believe it then you definitely won’t have to suffer through eating an olive you don’t like. However, this belief can be limiting. You can’t really say all olives taste bad until you have tried every kind — and there are many kinds to try.

The point isn’t that you should start eating olives. But hopefully this example shows you how a belief in a generalization can influence your perception, your experience, and the choices you make.

Generalizations – Helpful or harmful?

Generalizations can be used to make complex information easier to understand. For example, you can say everyday the sun rises in the morning. This is true and, baring any cataclysmic event, will continue to be true. But consider this example: if you say “Everyone is going to the big game this weekend” you don’t literally mean that every last person in the entire world will show up for the game. Usually this means everyone you know, or even more likely, just many of the people you know. Stating the generalization is still easier than saying explicitly who is going to the game. By saying ‘everyone is going’ it also communicates that the big game is the place to be this weekend.

Generalizations can be misleading. If you say ‘everyone is going to the game’ but you really mean all of your close friends, which is five people, then the game may not be as popular as it initially sounded. This concept applies to all generalizations. Generalizations have a large influence on how we perceive the world. It is very rare that a generalization is accurate — especially when applied to yourself. You may think that you always make a fool of yourself when you speak, but in reality, it is very difficult to be this consistent.

Self fulfilling prophecy

The generalizations we make are rarely correct all the time. So what does this mean for the exceptions to the generalization? Imagine you know a lot of people who are unfriendly and you make the generalization that “all people are unfriendly”. If you hold this belief you will always be cautious of how you communicate with others. You will become more reserved and closed off. This will make it difficult to connect to others and others will seem unfriendly thus reinforcing your belief. However, if you have a more balanced belief — some people are unfriendly and some people are friendly, then you will have a much better chance of finding people who are friendly.

Recognizing generalizations

Generalizations are typically characterized by words such as: all, every, always, never, and none. They cannot always be recognized by these words because sometimes they are implied. For example “Schoolwork is hard” is the same as “All schoolwork is hard”. Another example is “My friends don’t respect me” is the same as “None of my friends respect me”.

Overcoming generalizations

To overcome a generalization you need to recognize the options that it is hiding. There are two techniques for doing this. First, imagine that the generalization is 100% correct, then see what other conclusions you can make. For example, if you say “I can’t spell anything correctly” then that means every single word you write is spelt wrong. Even words like ‘or’ and ‘my’ are spelt wrong. Unless you are making a very deliberate effort, it is very difficult to write even a single sentence where every word is spelt incorrectly.

The second technique for overcoming a generalization is to look for places the generalization isn’t true. Using the example from the previous paragraph you may say that you spell all long words wrong. Is there a long word that you can spell correctly? Surely there must be. In fact, you can probably create a relatively small list of long words that you spell incorrectly, then your spelling problem becomes much easier to manage.


Generalizations can limit how we perceive the world around us. They can even become self fulfilling prophecies.

Not all generalizations are false (gravity always pulls down).

Generalizations can be recognized by the words: all, every, always, never, and none. However, these words can sometimes be implied.

To overcome a generalization you can take one of two approaches:

  • Imagine the generalization is 100% true then see what other unlikely conclusions you can make.
  • Ask the question “Has there ever been a time when there was an exception to this generalization?”

Related Pages

Unspecified Nouns
Unspecified Verbs
Modal Operators of Possibility
Modal Operators of Necessity
Universal Quantifiers
Complex Equivalence
Cause and Effect
Mind Reading