14 Overgeneralization of Results

Introduction: What is overgeneralization?

One of the scientists’ greatest fears is the distortion of their findings in the general population. Any misinterpretations of scientific findings could result in dire consequences in people’s health. There are numerous ways data could be distorted in public. For example, people may choose to emphasize on certain parts or leaving out certain parts of the findings. On the other hand, they might believe in all of the findings but over-generalizing the results. Out of all tyoes of distortion , overgeneralization may seem the most harmless out of all since people do not miss or add any information. However, overgeneralization can result in as much damage as the others.

Overgeneralization, the process of overextending rules  to other items, occurs frequently in our daily lives (The 7 Sins). For example, when you receive an assignment for class, you may neglect on asking for specific direction but rather defaulting to completing the assignment using the directions given by the teacher for a previous assignment. By doing so, you are overextending the rules of one assignment to another similar but different assignment. This act of overgeneralization could result in you receiving a bad score in class. Another example of overgeneralization that happens every day, which not many realize, is the bias toward groups of people based on race, gender, or sexual orientation. People tend to judge a whole group just because of the actions of a couple individuals within the group. They extend their views of the individuals to the whole population, overgeneralizing their feelings. It is also a phenomenon found frequently in mathematics, where basic principles are over-applied to incorrect situations (Stary,1991; Vandooren, 2007). Many students, for example, tend to approach different problems with the same tactic, stretch the basic rules to fit all situations. This instance is seen mostly in the forms of overgeneralization of proportions: students view everything to be proportional when they tackle at math questions. In philosophy, there has been a similar phenomenon. People generalize specific predicates to every single instances, thereby misunderstanding the real meaning of the predicates (López de Sa, 2008).

Overgeneralization in scientific field, on the other hand, represents the process of extending a single or a set of rules or findings of a study to circumstances of which they were not meant to be applied to.

In the world today filled with growing technologies, the media became the main source of the scientific findings for the general pubic. People are overwhelmed by the massive reports of new findings everyday and they are often unable to distinguish the useful information from the distorted ones. Yet, because of the media’s tendency to exaggerate in order to catch people’s attention, the public falls victims of this overgeneralization. The media can change the intended subjects of a study just by the usage of different wording.

The Complications: Dangers of Overgeneralization

            The science community views the media and the public’s tendency to overgeneralize scientific findings as a serious problem. The result of this overgeneralization could be the misunderstanding of the scope of a result. For example, the result yielded by a study aimed directly for Asians could be misinterpreted as applicable to the entire human race. The people also face the possibility of viewing the findings of a specific case study appropriate for the whole population. Since the scientific findings are almost always directly related to health, the overgeneralization by either the media or the people themselves can lead to great harm to the health of people. The gain of new information, whether distorted or not, will cause change in individuals’ “perception of risk and health behaviors” (Brechman, 2009). Overgeneralization often set a certain concept in stone, despite the actual original study might only show a small part of the whole picture. The public would then suffer in health because their overgeneralization results in unnecessary changes in their actions.

Real World Cases of Overgeneralization

Case 1: Only Minority Students are Able to make Substantial Gains in School?

The effectiveness of our educational system has been a highly concerned  subject in US today. Every year, researchers collect data of student’s performance in school in the hopes to evaluate the effectiveness of the educational program. Studies show that students who are less adequately educated make more gains in school (Brookover, 1987). Some educators such as Lawrence Stedman, however, have misinterpreted the data. Stedman believed that the data implies that “only” minority students are able to make substantial gains from the educational system because they were focused  in the study. However, minority students are only in reality a part of the focus, which actually includes all inadequately educated students. Stedman’s own personal bias has led to his overgeneralization of the role of minority students in education. He overextended minority students to represent all undereducated students. The actual study is focus on all undereducated students, regardless of their racial or ethnic background. Plenty of minority students are well-educated while many students of the majority population background are not adequately educated.

Case 2: Does Genetic Signature Exist for Each Type of Cancer?

In a study in 2005, scientists discovered a set of genes that links to the breast cancer’s spread to the lungs. This finding, according to the researchers, is still in its early stages and much more research needs to be conducted before the finding can be considered empirical evidence for the presence of genetic signature in the spread of breast cancer to lungs (Brechman, 2009).

The media, however, displayed the same study to the public in a completely different light. The press declared the finding to be a landmark because it proved the existence of genetic signature for “each type of cancer and the organ it spreads to.” This single sentence represents media overgeneralization on multiple levels. First, the original findings did not prove the existence of genetic signature in metastasis, much less being the landmark discovery reported by the press. The media exaggerated the significance of the findings, thereby distorting the public’s perception of the finding. Second, the study only involved research on breast cancer, not every type of cancer as the media has generalized. Third, the study did not look into breast cancer metastasis to any organs other than the lungs, despite the media’s report, let alone all types of cancer metastasis to all organs. The press coverage has overgeneralized the results by equating breast cancer to cancer in general and lungs to all body organs, greatly widening the scope of the study to completely inapplicable fields. This overgeneralization led to only falsely high hopes from breast cancer patients, who believes that the “landmark” discovery will produce advances in treatments, but also hopes from all cancer patients.

Case 3: Is Gene Fusion the Cause of Prostate Cancer?

In the year 2005, a press release from USA today reported a scientific breakthrough of a recent study that “identifies the likely origins of prostate cancer.” The new describe the finding to be “a major breakthrough that will change the scientific community’s current view on genetic roots of prostate cancer.” A first look at this story lights hope in the minds of public: if the origin is known, there will be no time before a cure to this disease is developed; after all, knowledge of the genetic origin is always the first step towards solving the issue.

The reality, however, was far from the picture presented by the news. The reported study was conducted in University of Michigan, the researchers present their findings as a “tantalizing evidence that gene fusion is the causative agent, the initiating event, in prostate cancer” (Brechman, 2009). The wordings of the researchers are greatly different from that of the news reporters. While the news describes the result as a “major breakthrough,” the actual researchers commented on it as only “tantalizing evidence” and not really enough to confirm gene fusion as the cause of prostate cancer. The truth is, therefore, the media has overextended the result of the study to something much greater and more significant by the change of wording. As a result, the public perceived the gene fusion as the confirmed cause of prostate cancer, even though the scientists only reported it as a mere possibility.

Case 4: Does the Evolution Theory Imply Sexism?

The evolution theory, also known as Darwinism, has long been manipulated and overgeneralized by the media to achieve political goals. On multiple occasions, the media has stretched the simple rules of the theory to imply discrimination on certain population groups. A well know application is Adolf Hitler’s propaganda which utilized the media to spread the social Darwinism idea that indicates German racial supremacy and ultimately caused the Holocaust. This misinterpretation and stretch of basic evolutionary principles are not only presented in bias in terms of race, but also gender. The society extends the evolutionary principle to stress the cultural bias toward gender. The two genders are believed to be the exact polar opposite; individuals are placed into categories because of their gender and assigned different qualities in respect to their gender. Scientific findings that show differences in psychological and physical aspects between men and women are overgeneralized by the public to be the evidence of the “natural and unchangeable difference” between gender and the reason behind the society’s “rightful” gender-based division of labor, social privileges, and political powers (Travis, 2003). While Darwin never implied sexual discrimination in his study, the media and public has stretched his ideas to be the basis of sexism. The overgeneralization of the evolution theory is in fact the culprit of long standing discrimination toward groups in today’s society.

Public’s Next Step In Avoiding Overgeneralization

            The public has suffered greatly from the misconduct of health behaviors due their overgeneralization of scientific findings. As the false media influence is unlikely to fade anytime soon and people are always faced with news reports, it is important for people to conduct more research before making the decision to engage a different health behavior. After reading a specific news story, it’s always a good idea to confirm the truthfulness by searching for the original study on authoritative scientific sites; thereby escaping media distortion and overgeneralization of the findings. Also, in order avoid overgeneralization in general, people should always remember to check the population scope of the results instead of automatically believing that all scientific findings apply to the whole population. A study that shows results that could bring better health to one group of the population may not do the same and even the opposite for everyone else.


Brechman, J., Lee, C., & Cappella, J. (2009, June 1). Lost in Translation? A Comparison of Cancer-Genetics Reporting in the Press Release and its Subsequent Coverage in Lay Press. Retrieved October 26, 2015.

Brookover, W. (1987, November 1). Distortion and Overgeneralization Are No Substitutes for …  Retrieved October 26, 2015.

López de Sa, D. (2008, July 1). The Over-Generalization Problem: Predicates Rigidly …  Retrieved October 29, 2015.

Stavy, R., & Torish, D. (1991, January 15). Overgeneralization in mathematics and science: The effect of external similarity. Retrieved October 26, 2015 .

The 7 Deadly Sins of Unethical Science Journalism. (n.d.). Retrieved October 26, 2015.

Travis, Cheryl Brown, ed. Evolution, Gender, and Rape. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press, 2003. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 28 October 2015 .

Van Dooren, W., De Bock, D., Hessels, A., Janssens, D., & Verschaffel, L. (2005). Not Everything Is Proportional: Effects of Age and Problem Type on Propensities for Overgeneralization. Retrieved October 26, 2015.