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Do You Confuse People's 'States' With Their 'Traits'?

Why most generalizations usually miss the mark and make us look foolish.

When Eloise remarked that “Mark is brilliant,” she was referring to his clever strategies on the tennis court. Keith retorted: “Mark doesn’t seem too smart to me.” He was referring to the fact that Mark is neither well educated or intellectual. Both Eloise and Keith were generalizing. If Eloise had said that Mark is a brilliant tennis player, there would have been no reason for Keith to contradict her.

But, whenever you make an overly general statement about another person or about yourself, you are likely to be distorting the facts and conveying very little useful information.

This is because most generalizations fail to differentiate between states and traits. A state is a temporary way of being (i.e., thinking, feeling, behaving, and relating) while a trait tends to be a more stable and enduring characteristic or pattern of behavior. So, someone with a character trait of calmness and composure can, under certain circumstances, act agitated and angry because of being in a temporary state that is quite uncharacteristic of his or her regular style.

In fact, this mistake is so common, in psychology it’s sometimes called the fundamental attribution error—meaning that people often mistakenly attribute peoples’ behavior to some internal motivation rather than external circumstances.

Hence, statements such as, “You are selfish," “You are wonderful,” “You are stupid,” or “You are brilliant” are all vague generalizations. Indeed, “You are selfish,” implies that the person almost always makes inconsiderate or self-centered choices that disregard the needs and wishes of others. In other words, the person's character trait is selfishness. But an occasional selfish act does not make someone selfish across the board because even a very generous person can occasionally be in a state during which he or she is anything but generous.

Overgeneralizations such as these tend to be made after specific events. For example, Gerald was annoyed that his wife revealed some personal information about his brother to several friends. “You’re a blabbermouth!” he said. Instead of making such a vague and sweeping generalization, it would have been much more effective for him to say, “I wish you wouldn’t talk to your friends about my brother’s problems.”

As suggested above, nobody is one way 100% of the time. If someone makes selfish choices 20% of the time, he or she is 80% non-selfish. So it's best to be specific. For instance, “You acted selfishly at Sally’s party when you refused to share that huge piece of cake with Tommy.” Similarly, instead of saying, “You’re stupid,” let the person to whom that comment is directed know what action is behind your criticism: “The comment you made to Ann about her mother seemed very foolish to me.”

Make your communications as specific as possible.

Most generalizations—“You’re brilliant,” “You’re wonderful”—are usually false, and can cause embarrassment or even hurt. Someone can be wonderful with figures, brilliant with math but rather inept in other subjects. Thus, a statement such as “You have a wonderful vocabulary and a terrific way with words” conveys a lot more than “You're so smart.” And the same applies to general self-statements such as “I’m foolish"; "I never do anything right"; "I'm a jerk"; or "I am a genius.”

In essence, doing something selfish or stupid on occasion does not add up to being a selfish or stupid person.

Conversely, doing something generous or brilliant on occasion does not add up to being a generous or brilliant person.

Thus, when you’re on the receiving end of criticism or a put-down, ask others to be specific.

If negative remarks are aimed at you, taking offense or retaliating (“You are not so smart yourself!”) is not nearly as effective as simply saying, “Can you please be more specific?” Most often, this leads the critic to rethink his or her position and state it in terms that are more constructive.

The bottom line: Remember the old proverb, "One swallow does not make a summer," meaning it's silly to generalize from a specific instance. Also, keep in mind that all people have temporary states (i.e., situationally specific and brief states of mind) as well as consistent and enduring character traits. It is the latter that tend to be the most reliable gauge of a person's true nature.

Remember: Think well, act well, feel well, be well!

Dear Reader: The advertisements contained in this post do not necessarily reflect my opinions nor are they endorsed by me. —Clifford

Copyright 2017 Clifford N. Lazarus, Ph.D. This post is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional assistance or personal mental health treatment by a qualified clinician.

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