Cognitive Errors – Overgeneralization and Filtering

We continue our series on cognitive errors today with a discussion of over-generalization and filtering.

Over-generalization involves using one piece of data, or just a few data points to form broad conclusions.   This thinking pattern is well represented in discussions on gun violence.  Here are a few examples:

+Background checks are “useless” because “criminals will never submit to them.” (quote attributed to Wayne LaPierre of the NRA, multiple media sources)

+  “Armed guards didn’t work at Columbine and they aren’t the solution now.” (Patrick Murphy, MSNBC blog, 4/16/13)

+“If people want to kill you, you can’t stop them. Even a fork can be deadly.” (comment reported by Kristoff, New York Times, 12/20/12)

+“Less guns, less gun violence seems to make good sense to me. More guns, more gun violence, so more guns and yet more gun violence.” (comment on Murphy MSNBC blog post, 4/16/13)

+“[T]he only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (NRA spokesman comment quoted by Murphy MSNBC blog post, 4/16/23)

+ “But the fact is still the same – that guns don’t kill people.”  (comment in TribTalk, Columbia Daily Tribune, 2/12/13)

Over-generalization often appears in conjunction with Filtering, which occurs when we focus only on the negative facts (or less frequently, only on the positive facts) and ignore the rest.   “Filtering” is often expressed as unwillingness to engage.  For example, “Look, they believe this, and you just can’t ever work with them.”

Over-generalization and filtering both serve the rhetorical purpose of emphasizing and highlighting a point in ways that are difficult to challenge.  Both also serve a related emotional purpose as well – they signal that the speaker believes strongly in a particular point,  and wants others to back off.  Over-generalization and filtering are both more common as discussions get heated.  Both drive participants away from rather than toward greater understanding.  As a facilitator, when you hear individuals begin to trade strong overstatements, or spit competing “facts” at each other, you need to act to defuse the negative emotions that are building and invite (encourage) the participants to do something more than trade platforms.

One way to do this is to acknowledge what is going on without pinpointing any one participant, while introducing another context.  The facilitator can point out what is happening by saying something like:  “You each feel strongly on these issues and are presenting examples that illustrate the point you want to have heard.  And those points include . . . ” (here the facilitator would include a translation of the range of points, for example – “that guns are related to violence and also that guns are related to staying safe; many of you are concerned about lessening crime and violence across our community”). To introduce a shift in context, the facilitator would then follow-up with a question like:   “What information about crime in our community would help inform our discussion?”

To help shift context and refocus a discussion, the facilitator can frame a question around any of the five sources of conflict.   Sometimes it’s a good idea to offer the participants more than one question and let them choose the direction to go in.  In the example just given, the context shift was focused on information.  The context-shifting question could also focus on relationships – “ideally, what do we want for our community?”, or values – “what are the principles or values that underlie your concerns?”, or structure – “how might this issue be best approached, at the individual, local, state or federal level and why?”, or interests – “safety and freedom are both interests that have been identified so far, what are some of the other interests involved and what are the differences and overlap in how we are defining those interests?”

As another example of reflecting and shifting, the facilitator might list several of the examples and statements that have been offered (again making sure to use those that reflect the range of views), and then ask participants to explore them further by asking open-ended questions like the following: “in what ways do ‘more guns’ mean more violence or less crime? what examples are we hearing that challenge or confirm these various views? what data or information do we have (or could we look for) that would help us explore these examples further?  what concepts or theories (or assumptions or values) lie behind our choice of these examples? in what ways are those similar or different?”

Although using open-ended questions like these can help to counteract both over-generalization and filtering, if participants are to be effectively engaged, these questions must be asked gently and without pressure for the group to move in a particular direction.   If participants don’t trust the facilitator to hear their thoughts, questions and concerns, they will disengage or actively oppose the process.    The actual questions asked by the facilitator will of course depend on the dialogue and its participants.  However, whatever questions are asked, they must be framed in a way that invites further input from all.  This means no stereotyping, no direct challenges from the facilitator to an individual speaker, and no negative judging of one set of examples over another in framing the questions.  It does not mean though that there are no boundaries or that anything goes.  Good planning, and discussion of boundaries at the outset, are also important foundational components of civil dialogue.

3 responses to “Cognitive Errors – Overgeneralization and Filtering

  1. Pingback: Cognitive Errors – Polarized Thinking | The Blog for Building Dialogue

  2. Pingback: Navigating Cognitive Errors | The Blog for Building Dialogue

  3. Pingback: Weeding and Watching – Part 1 | The Blog for Building Dialogue

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