Probably the most common mistake we make in our automatic thinking is overgeneralization. It's easy to see why. Each of us has to think about new experiences in terms of old experiences. We recognize most easily those qualities in a person or thing which we have seen before. The baby just learning to talk may call all men "Da-Da" or all four-legged animals "bow wow." But the baby will quickly learn to see the differences between different men and different animals. Generalization as a stage we go through in learning is not only acceptable; it is necessary. Until you recognize Bessie as a cow, you'll never be able to attend to the special characteristics--the clipped ear, the long tail--that make Bessie different from the other cows. We get into trouble when we stop at the generalization stage. All cows are not the same.

Because our automatic thoughts are based on our memories of past experiences, we might expect that many of those thoughts will tend to be generalizations that distort our perception of what we see. And that is the case. But because our automatic thoughts are automatic, it's very easy for us to stop with the generalizations, to accept them without examining them further. The strength of this cognitive distortion accounts for the prevalence of stereotyping in much of our thinking about other people. If I accept my automatic thoughts as reliable, I will probably conclude that all Blacks, or all Whites, or all Chicanos, or all Scandinavians are alike. And the less I actually know about a certain group of people, the stronger and clearer will be my stereotype.

The kind of overgeneralization that gives us, as students, the most trouble is the kind we make about our own performances and capabilities. If I've done poorly on essay exams in the past, when I find out that I have to take an essay exam my automatic thought may be, "I do poorly on essay exams." I am generalizing from one or two experiences of a certain kind to all experiences of a certain kind. Notice that this makes no sense at all until I have examined the differences, as well as the similarities, between the present task and the past one.

There are several specific forms of overgeneralization that most of us use at one time or another. And we have probably invented some variations that fall between the categories.

To Cognitive Distortions List

1996 John Tagg

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