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Key Idea #6: The Mind Tends to Generalize Beyond the Original Experience

One of the important truths that Jean Piaget, the noted child psychologist, discovered about children is that they overgeneralize their immediate feelings. If something good happens to them, the whole world looks good to them. If something bad happens to them, the whole world looks bad to them. He called this phenomenon egocentric immediacy. What Piaget did not emphasize, however, is that the same reaction patterns are found in much adult thinking. It is fair to say that everyone has some difficulty putting the ups and downs of daily life into a long-range perspective. It is not easy to keep things in proper perspective, given the strength of our immediate (emotional) reactions.

Once we begin to interpret situations or events in our life as negative, we also tend to generalize that negativity and even, on occasion, to allow it to cast a gloom over our whole life. A broad-based pessimism or a foolish optimism can come to permeate our thinking when negative or positive events happen to us. We move rapidly from thinking of one or two events in our lives as negative (or positive) to thinking of everything in our lives as negative (or positive). Egocentric negative thinking easily leads to indulgent self-pity. And egocentric positive thinking easily leads to an unrealistic state of complacent comfort.

Even a whole nation can be stampeded into an unrealistic state of complacent comfort by the reporting of one positive event. Hence, in England in 1938, after Neville Chamberlain returned to England from Munich holding an agreement with Hitler in his hand, he declared, "Peace in our times!" Most of the people in England rejoiced triumphantly over the success of having obtained Hitler's agreement, without factoring into their thinking Hitler's consistent record of broken promises. The entire nation was transformed into a state of national euphoria brought on by egocentric immediacy.

Rational voices like that of Winston Churchill, expressing skepticism that Hitler would be satisfied with this concession, were thrust aside as alarmist and without foundation. But Churchill had looked at the events at hand using a long-term, realistic perspective.

Consider an everyday problem for many people who tend to see the world in largely negative terms. They wake up in the morning and have to deal with a few unexpected minor problems. As the day progresses, and as they deal with more "problems," everything in their lives appears negative. The snowball of bad things happening gets bigger and bigger as the day passes. By the end of the day, they are unable to see any positive things in their lives. Their thinking (usually tacit of course) is something like this:

Everything looks bad. Life isn't fair. Nothing good ever happens to me. I always have to deal with problems. Why does everything bad happen to me?

Controlled by these thoughts, they lack the ability to counteract unbridled negativity with rational thoughts. They can't see the many good things in their lives. Their egocentric mind is shielding them from the full range of facts that would change their way of thinking so they could see things in a more realistic and, in this case, a more positive light.

Strategic Idea

If we intervene with rational thoughts at the point at which egocentric negativity begins, before it completely pervades the mind's functioning, we have a better chance of reducing or overthrowing it. The first step requires that we become intimately familiar with the phenomenon of egocentric immediacy. Then we should begin to identify instances of it in our own life as well as the lives of those around us.

The second step requires that we develop a rich and comprehensive list of the facts of our lives. It is important that we develop this list not when we are in the throes of an egocentric "fit" but, instead, when we are viewing the world from a rational perspective.

We also want to develop a long-range perspective to call upon when necessary to give the proper weight to individual events, whether positive or negative. We must establish in our mind what our most important values are. We must frame in our mind a long-range historical perspective. We must bring those values and this perspective strongly before our mind when lesser values and the distortions of egocentric immediacy begin to dominate our thoughts and feelings. When we have a well-established "big picture" in our mind, what are in effect small events will remain small, not blown out of proportion.

When we perceive that our thinking is tending toward egocentric immediacy, we can actively undermine it through comprehensive rational thinking. This involves reasoning with ourselves, pointing out flaws in our thinking, identifying and presenting relevant information we are ignoring, pointing out information we are distorting, checking our assumptions, and tracking the implications of our thinking. In short, by developing a deep and comprehensive "big picture" in our mind, by keeping this comprehensive view as much as possible in the foreground of our thinking in daily life, we can minimize our own tendency toward egocentric immediacy. We can become skilled in recognizing what truly is small and large in our life. We can chart our course more effectively, navigating through passing storms and deceptively quiet seas alike.

Test the Idea
"Big Picture" Thinking

Think of a situation you were recently in where you felt an intense negative emotion that generated a chain reaction of further negative states in your mind, leading to a generalized feeling of depression. At that moment, your life looked bleak and unforgiving. Figure out the "big picture" thinking that was missing from your mind as you fell prey to egocentric immediacy.

Complete these statements:

  1. The objective situation was as follows...

  2. Irrationally responded to the situation by...

  3. I felt these negative emotions...

  4. The "big picture" thinking that I needed but did not develop is something like the following...

  5. The information I was failing to consider in my thinking was...

  6. I can best avoid this situation in the future by...

  7. I now realize...

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