The Psychology of Hate and the Dangers of Overgeneralizing

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We should be skeptical when researchers or theorists tell us that hate is always grounded in fear or insecurity.

Ours is a complex, often hard to understand and equally hard to deal with world. And it seems that in many ways life gets more challenging and complicated every day. In the midst of our confusion about how to cope, it would be nice to have simple, easy to understand explanations for why things are the way they are. It would be nicer still to have clearcut guidelines for how to deal with the many things that concern us and how to make the things that bother us better. Perhaps it’s our yearning for such simple guidelines that makes us prone to overgeneralize whenever we do learn. Our experience teaches us many things. And perhaps our need for some consistency and predictability in our lives makes it tempting to generalize lessons we’ve managed to learn in certain situations to many others as well. But alas, life appears to defy simple analysis. So while it’s in our interest to uncover its most important governing principles, we should be wary of overgeneralizing the rules we think we’ve discovered along the way.

In light of the social polarization going on in many societies and cultures these days, I recently reviewed some of the current research and thinking on the psychology of hate. I uncovered some interesting facts. But much of what I found disappointed me, not so much because the information the various researchers and theorists had gathered wasn’t valuable but rather because it seemed that those who’d gathered it were far too quick to translate what they believed they’d learned into general explanations that always apply. For example, one hate researcher was quick to assert that “not all insecure people are haters but all haters are insecure people.” Wow! That would make the solution simple: just work to make everyone feel secure. Secure people won’t hate anymore! This would be incredible news — if only it were really that simple. Still others assert that we hate only what we inwardly fear. This notion has been around a long time. The term “homophobia,” for example, was coined long ago to describe the animosity some folks have toward gay people, supposedly rooted in an underlying fear that being comfortable with same sex orientation would somehow unleash repressed urges in an otherwise straight person and encourage wholesale abandonment of the mechanism that propagates the human race.

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But is there really a simple, general rule? Do we hate only when (or even because) we fear or are insecure?

In “Radical Ideologies, Deadly Ways of Thinking” (and the follow up “Radical Ideologies: Deadly Ways of Thinking, Part 2”), I note that the disdain some people have for others is rooted in a twisted way they tend to think about things and the superior attitudes they often harbor. I also point out that such attitudes and ways of thinking are not necessarily rooted in underlying feelings of insecurity. On the contrary, there are some people who simply believe their way of seeing and doing things should be the way everyone else should adopt. They also want to be in charge and set all the rules. The hate these folks have for competing points of view has much less to do with feelings of insecurity and much more to do with their desire to dominate. (Of course, there are those who again argue that anyone who seeks to dominate just must be insecure underneath it all.) Moreover, many of the more ardent promoters of these radical hate ideologies are not driven so much by any fear of those they seek to dominate but rather by the anger they feel toward those whom they solidly blame for the problems and injustices that concern them. And for them, the simple remedy to this situation is to eliminate the guilty — all those who don’t see things their way — so the “righteous” — all who march in lockstep with their wishes — can live in peace and dignity.

In the pursuit of general rules to explain and understand human behavior, theorists in the field have always had a tendency to overgeneralize their discoveries. And in my books Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) and In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK](?) I explain how problematic it’s been in the modern era that theories which Freud developed to explain some relatively uncommon (though more prevalent in his time) and bizarre psychological phenomena, wound up being generalized in to a theory purporting to explain the behavior of everyone — and fairly blindly accepted as valid for far too long. Helping professionals had to learn the hard way that every perspective and paradigm has its limitations.

We’d all like some answers as to why there’s so much hate and discord in the world. But we won’t find those ansers in simple little overgeneralized propositions such as that only fearful, insecure people hate. Overgeneralizing is inherently antagonistic to the other essential aspect of learning: discrimination. And we could all stand to be a little more discriminating as we search for truth. In my years of counseling I’ve encountered many folks who disadvantaged themselves greatly by thinking they’d learned more than they actually had on the basis of some unique experience. Folks who have faced some challenging times and have therefore learned some hard lessons in life can indeed become all the wiser for it. But they can also overgeneralize from their “teachable moments.” While in many ways, experience is indeed the best teacher, folks can inadvertently deceive themselves when they allow themselves to think that just because something went a certain way or happened for a particular reason in their particular case, they’ve uncovered some general rules to go by every time in the future. Of course, a person can make the exact opposite mistake, being so hesitant to recognize and heed the tough lessons life has tried to teach them that they repeat the same kinds of mistakes over and over again. So it’s necessary to strike the proper balance. But striking that balance is itself not always that easy — and most of the time, there simply is no general rule.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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