Over-generalization In Our Political Thinking


Christopher Ebbe Ph.D.   1-22

ABSTRACT:  Our current political divide is fueled by over-generalization by both media and individuals, and results in false pictures in our minds of people we know little about.  Refraining from this over-generalization would help with our society’s governance struggles.

KEY WORDS:  generalization, over-generalization, politics

Our nation is suffering through a long and angry political divide between, basically, conservative and liberal approaches to maintaining and improving society.  Greater understanding and basic acceptance of others, regardless of political views, among citizens would help and would lead to many more, useful compromises for solving our problems (for elaboration see my essays “How to Arrive at Appropriate Compromises in the Federal Government,” “Basic Needs as a Basis for Understanding Populism,” and “Democracy’s Requirements,” on www.livewiselydeeply.com under Government).

The basic concept in these essays is that we each have slightly unique views of life and people due to our unique combinations of genetics and experience, which naturally results in differences in what we think will be best for our democracy.  The hopeful belief regarding democracy is that combining these disparate views in making joint decisions will result in the best possible outcomes for society.  However, to do this combining, we must take the needs and views of those who differ from us seriously into account and be willing to accept the necessity of compromising.  Our historical background (rebellion, frontier, exceptionalism) promotes action rather than discussion and tends to result in fighting before compromising, so we would need to retrain ourselves for compromising in the interest of doing what is possible, in contrast with the current political climate which promotes winning and not giving an inch to the other side and therefore gets very little done.

Conservatives and liberals tend to align with different moral principles (see Jonathan Haidt’s analysis, where liberals tend to value caring, change (progress) and autonomy, and conservatives tend to value tradition, order, hierarchy, and sacredness.  This can give rise to intractable positions on both sides.  To get beyond these loggerheads, individuals must understand and accept that others are different and that the views of others may have as much legitimacy as our own in the bigger picture of things, thus requiring some intellectual humility. 

Having a certain amount of knowledge about other people would help with this problem, but unfortunately people in our nation tend to know little about the lifestyles and values of people at a distance or in a different environmental situation.  The enlarging gulf between urban persons and rural persons is a good illustration, with urban persons desiring planning, cooperation among many people, and changing things for the better, and rural persons liking smaller enclaves and being satisfied with keeping things running well just as they have been in the past.  Urban persons don’t appreciate the emotional value of the rural position (stability, comradeship, ready cooperation, closeness to neighbors), and rural persons don’t appreciate the problems of human crowding, such as increased anonymity and crime.

In addition to this basic ignorance of each other, our own thinking processes contribute to the problematic divisions, but no one recognizes this problem,  because human beings are not good at knowing that they don’t know something that they think they know and tend to assume that what they “know” is accurate and sufficient for decision-making.  Even media persons who say that they check things before they report to us are often politically biased and check only to see that what they say is not clearly contradicted, since they want what they say to be consistent with their own personal beliefs and views.  (It is notable that the function of communication for many people is to get what they want rather than to express what is true, which means that much of what many people say is non-sensical but may still get them what they want since it aims to convince and not to educate!) 

A key cognitive ability of our species that plays a role in these distortions is generalization, which we use frequently to maximize our chances of making good decisions.  If we are harmed by someone, instead of treating it as a one-time occurrence, we will probably be extra careful when around that same person again, because we might be hurt again.  Our data doesn’t prove that we will be hurt again, but we generalize and thereby avoid some future harm, even though we might be wrong part of the time (or even most of the time). 

Overall, our ability to generalize has been adaptive for humans, but incorrect generalizations occur fairly frequently and are often harmful.  We visit one city in a country and then “naturally” think that the whole country is like that city.  We hear an assertion about another political group, and we think that it fits every member of that group.  These assumptions are false, and they make our thinking crude and inaccurate.

Unless we have separate knowledge about the person or issue at hand, we are likely to make these false generalizations.  If we have separate knowledge (like personally knowing the views of a member of the group in question or having some knowledge about the composition of the group in question), then we can compare that knowledge with what is being claimed about the group by others or the media.

A non-political example of unfortunate overgeneralization is that of the woman who is raped or sexually abused by a man and afterward views all men as potential rapists or abusers, thus leading her to avoid close relationships with all other men, which closes off avenues for her to enjoy loving relationships with men, makes it less likely that she will marry, and makes it less likely that she can enjoy sex.  The overgeneralization can be seen as an overly ambitious effort to protect herself, since if she avoids all contact with or physical proximity to men, she lessens her chances of ever again be raped or abused by a man, but its inaccuracy also has negative consequences. 

This is an example of emotion clouding judgment or thought.  One’s terrible experience must be prevented from happening again, and the emotion of this makes it difficult to critique one’s own thought process or judgment.  The logical error here is to think that “all men are the same” (as part of a–I was raped by a man, b–all men are the same, therefore c—all men are likely to harm me), which is certainly not true, but the fear and avoidance push her to be extra safe by viewing all men as the same (which also avoids the problems of trying to determine which of them are dangerous and which are not).

To be fair, this choice depends also on the relative valuation of the alternatives.  If never again being raped or abused is judged to be more valuable than having closeness with a man or having children, then the generalization could be seen as useful.

Over-generalizing can also result from poor thinking, as in a–my father was a louse, b–my father was a man, c–therefore all men are lice.  Another is a–some women are fickle, b–it is dangerous to trust someone who is fickle, c–therefore you should never trust a woman.  This sloppy thinking is sometimes made worse by enjoyment of the social drama that often accompanies illogical assertions.  Extreme words, such as “all,” “always,” “is,” “never,” “everybody,” and “nobody” often indicate overgeneralization (the word “is” may itself indicate an overgeneralization–“it sure is hot in here,” when all the person knows is that she herself feels hot).

As noted above, these examples could lead to more accurate conclusions if the thinker carefully considered “all men are the same” and “some women are fickle.”  In the former, “men” would more accurately be seen as a complex group consisting of some men who are likely to rape and some men who are quite unlikely to rape.  In the latter, “some women are fickle” has subtly become “since it is vitally important never to be disappointed in trusting again, I must consider all women to be potentially fickle.”

In our thinking about social problems, we see other examples of believing the false conclusion that what one has experienced is an accurate sample or representation of the whole of reality.  Our country has a history of gun ownership and use of guns for self-protection and for protecting our freedoms, but in the last fifty years, the exposure of everyone in the culture to the use of guns has increased dramatically.  This has taken place through the media and the increasing amount of time that we have been spending watching movies and television and playing video games that involve gun violence.  A staggering number of movies, TV shows, and video games portray the use of guns against other people in a positive, or at least a useful, light.  “Entertainment” quite frequently portrays people using guns to protect themselves, “level the playing field,” gain justified revenge, and get what they want through the use of guns.  This frequent exposure to gun use and the frequent “justified” use of guns in the media has tended to make the use of guns against other people more “normal” to us than it used to seem.  We make this generalization (gun use is a normal part of everyone’s life, including mine) even if we ourselves have no further hands-on experience with guns at all. 

We are for the most part unaware of this change in our perceptions, because human beings automatically view everything against the context of their total experience, and “entertainment” plays a larger part in our experience of the world than it used to.  It makes little difference if we can consciously “tell the difference between reality and entertainment” if asked to do so, since changes in these assumptions and conclusions are largely unconscious for most people.  Media exposure counts significantly in the totality of experience that determines our expectations and attitudes.

Consider also the belief of many who watch local TV news that there is much more crime than there actually is.  Since the news shows as much as they can of the crime that occurs in the area (to attract viewers) we naturally assume unconsciously that this accurately represents the risk of crime in every neighborhood every day, which it does not.  (If we heard only about the crime in our neighborhood, we would make a more accurate assumption about the risk of crime in our neighborhood.)  The same applies to our perceptions that stem from watching movies.  Since so many movies are about crime, we conclude that there is more crime than there actually is, since we assume that the number and proportion of these movies accurately portrays reality.

Scientists and professionals can over-generalize, too.  Much psychological research was done using male college students (for the convenience of professors).  Psychologists over-generalized research findings based only on these college males to females and then even to all citizens, but now that is recognized as inaccurate, and psychologists are still struggling to avoid over-generalizing across cultures.

We tend to assume that even if psychology overgeneralizes, surely medicine needn’t worry about that, since the human body is universally the same, but it has now become unavoidably clear that people from different ethnic backgrounds respond to at least some medications rather differently.

A sidelight regarding generalization is the way in which we believe that information that we have gained directly, through our own senses or through information that we have been given, is accurate.  Listen to the arguments between people who have two different sources of information about the same event or issue.  Each will argue that what he heard was correct, even though each heard only one source and neither has any corroboration.  We tend unconsciously to assume that what we hear or see represents the whole of reality accurately. 

To return to politics, if you hear a report of white-supremacy beliefs on the part of a Republican, you may be in danger of assuming, without further proof, that many or most Republicans have white-supremacy beliefs, unless you have some counter-balancing source of information, like knowing some Republicans well enough to know whether they actually have white-supremacy beliefs or having a more articulated sense of who is included in the group “Republican.”  There are actually many types or subgroups of Republicans (defined as those whose main political leaning is toward the Republican party).  A majority “believe in” Mr. Trump, but some 15 or 20 percent do not.  Some are allied with classically conservative political views (e.g., not to trust human planning to turn out as intended, and to be skeptical of all politicians who want power), but all but a handful of Trump supporters know nothing about such principles and do not care to know about them.  Many Republicans (as with Democrats) vote Republican simply because they always have, and some of these will have white-supremacy views and some will not.

Similarly, if you hear from media that Democrats want to make this a socialist country, you are at risk for believing it if you are a Republican and believe strongly in individual responsibility for self, unless for some reason you know enough about Democrats to know that not all Democrats want socialism.  Only a few do.  Even the current Progressives (ten (?) percent of the party whom the media make sound like a majority) who are pushing for more public benefits don’t necessarily want socialism as a system—they simply want to relieve suffering on the part of citizens, and they see government as a way to do it.

To take another example, Trump voters are not all the ignorant jerks the left-leaning media portrays them to be. In fact we can identify a number of types of Trump voters.

  1. persons of conservative persuasion who voted for Mr. Trump mainly as the conservative alternative, even if they disliked him as a person
  2. persons who had always voted Republican and who voted for Mr. Trump mainly for that reason, even if they disliked him as a person
  3. persons who fall in the populist group who voted for Mr. Trump based on their recent experience in life (thinking that only he would be able to make some changes) 
  4. persons who liked Mr. Trump’s policy promises (be tough on China, take better care of American workers, make our allies pay their way) but who did not fall in groups 1, 2, 3, or 5. 
  5. persons from the militia (prepare to fight federal take-overs), sovereignty (“I am my own country, and the U.S. has no claim on me since I am a citizen of another country”), and apocalypse (end-of-the-world) groups who related to Mr. Trump as a disrupter.  (A key difference between groups 3 and 5 is that the Trump voters and white identity groups that are described in group 3 want to be re-included in society in a more favorable status, no matter how much they might criticize current society, while the militias, sovereignty groups, and end-of-the-world groups seek fundamental changes in the country’s philosophy.  Many group 5 members did not vote at all.)
  6. Persons who are attracted to Mr. Trump’s personality (image of
    strength, power, self-control, control in general, complete    willingness to use power to win) but who have few or no populist

In a similar vein, impressions of people in the South being all prejudiced “rednecks,” people in Washington state being all hippies, or people in Boston all liking baked beans are all misleading over-generalizations.  Not all Republicans want abortion outlawed, and not all Democrats support the current Build Back Better legislation, especially because this legislation contains so many different proposals for spending.

Over-generalization is rampant among people who band together to oppose what another group wants, since members are attracted to believing what everyone else seems to believe.  Groups often paint a picture of their opponents as being morally undeserving (uncaring, authoritarian, child trafficers, ignorant, etc.).  If your opponent is undeserving or “bad,” then you are justified in rejecting what he says, regardless of whether what he says is true.  This demonization of opponents is what we use to justify killing others in war, and it can certainly lead to some violence within our own country.

The point is simply that every time you hear of “all” people in any sizeable group being the same in some respect, it’s well to reject that claim until you can think it through and perhaps gather more information on the subject.  This is especially true when groups are opposed to each other, as our political parties are, or when the claimant has an axe to grind or is making money from stirring you up regardless of the truth (as most of our cable news anchors and reporters are).  You will have to consciously guide yourself to suspend or refine your judgment, since to correct old habits takes purposive action.

To be aware of and avoid this tendency to over-generalize could be important in moving back to an atmosphere in Congress in which listening and willingness to compromise are key tools in making Congress effective again.


In order to avoid the trap of over-generalization, pause to consider every generalization you make.  Some will be useful and not too far from the truth, but many, especially when your emotions are involved, are likely to be inaccurate.  Be fair to the people you are considering.  They are human, too, and they are seeking the same goals and outcomes in life that you are (survival, security, having some positive emotions in life, feeling positively about oneself, sex, having and raising children, being basically accepted in our families, nations).  Recognizing our kinship with all other human beings can help us to be more careful in our generalizations.

Before accepting a generalization, reflect on what you know about the people or group in question.  Does what you know fit with the generalization?  If you have no evidence one way or the other, seek some unbiased information about the people or group.  Ask someone you consider to be relatively objective.  If you are still uncertain, refrain from making any generalization until you know more. It’s OK not to know.  You have no obligation to agree with those whom you happen to be around.

Think carefully about each element of your logic.  Question whether you have any basis for “knowing” each thing that you think you know.  In the syllogism a—Republicans are conservative; b—conservatives are against gun control; therefore c—Republicans are against gun control, for example, examine each element for possible errors.  Generally Republicans are conservative, but some Republicans are less conservative than others, and every Republican probably differs from the party line on some important issue (“moral hazard” in financial bail-outs; abortion; gun control; gay marriage).  Generally conservatives are against gun control, since it represents what could be seen as unwarranted intrusion of government into private life, but certainly some conservatives see a need for some degree or form of gun control.  So, it would be more correct to conclude that some (or even most) Republicans are against gun control.  This example points up the common problem of making every member of a group the same for purposes of understanding the world.  This can make things seem simpler, but it is usually inaccurate and must lead to inaccurate thinking.

Identify all of your self-serving distortions—what you want to believe and how you might be overgeneralizing in order to claim that what you want to believe is true.  Ask yourself if you would make the same generalization if you didn’t care about the outcome for yourself.  Ask yourself if you would be totally comfortable to have persons you are generalizing about know what you are thinking about them.

Try to notice any “holes” in your awareness—relevant data that you are never aware of because you don’t want to be or because it would call into question a valued belief.

After you have reached a tentative conclusion, always search your knowledge and memory for instances or events that go against your conclusion and try to understand how they should appropriately influence your conclusion.  If you believe that competition is a good control on prices, before you make that argument to others, seriously examine the evidence around deregulation, which in many industries has not kept prices under control.  Try to think of all of the explanations for why this has occurred.  Perhaps deregulation kept prices down farther than they would have risen without deregulation, or perhaps regulations were not the factor keeping participants from competing.

Before reaching or voicing a conclusion, wonder about the assumptions that underlie your thinking.  It is a good practice to assume that every perception and every interpretation of a perception may be distorted, and to check every one of these as closely as you can.  When you are thinking about the economy and arguing or wanting to believe that more competition is a better control on prices than government price controls, you are probably assuming that participants will undoubtedly compete if they are unhindered by government regulations, etc., but it is possible, given our hunger for wealth, our innate distaste for risk, and the complexities of production, that we have reached a point in our society at which all market participants will opt to simply maintain their income and position rather than trying to better the competition by taking the risks of doing something different.  What might seem in some cases like collusion to fix prices may be simply everyone just trying to keep the status quo stable. 

Ask yourself why we simply assume that if a business’s costs go up, they “must” raise their prices (thus contributing to inflation), when they could accept less profit or less in their paychecks.

Before reaching or voicing a conclusion, wonder about the influence of context on your thinking.  As pointed out above, each of us thinks that our knowledge and experience are complete and accurate, but thinking “outside the frame” or “outside the box” can point out how wrong this can be.  If you are trying to figure out why our educational system doesn’t prepare children better for life, you will have conclusions based on your view of the world and your assumptions about life, but it can help to wonder how other countries educate their children.  It might turn out that differences in educational methods are not as important as differences between children in each country in their motivation to learn, for example.  If we are thinking about intergenerational relations, it can help to find out how such things work in other cultures, because this can reveal assumptions that we are unaware of.

Check out your generalization against the experience of others and the accumulated wisdom of all cultures, not just your own.

Ask others whose reality perceptions and honesty you trust to

give you their opinion about the matter in question.

When, after careful thinking, you cannot determine whether a generalization is true (or likely to be true), suspend judgment until you get more information one way or the other!  We have a strong desire to “know,” even when we don’t know, so suspending judgment is not easy, but it can lead to better conclusions in the end.

When politics is involved, be especially careful to suspend your outrage and carefully consider why the group you are considering thinks or acts as they do.  Everyone always acts in ways that he/she believe will be in his/her best interest, so ask yourself what that view of self-interest is in their case (and in your own, of course).  Every time you refer to Republicans or Democrats, ask yourself whether your conclusion applies equally to all of the people in those groups.

It might seem that if you were careful about how you generalize, you would never reach any conclusions, and of course we often have to act on the information we have rather than having the option to wait for more information, but if you know the dangers of over-generalizing, and you are willing to suspend judgment (or to correct your judgment after you have taken actions), we can avoid a great deal of unnecessary conflict.  It’s OK to recognize that you don’t know, and even better to base your generalizations on sound data.

Haidt, Jonathan.  The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Penguin, 2012.

essays\generalizationandpolitics (from generalizationerrors)