Critical Thinking Training: How to Recognize Your AssumptionsApril 23, 2013
Remember the salty adage, “When you make an assumption, it makes an …” well, you remember. Assumptions gone awry lead to mistakes, miscommunication, and bad decisions. Like mischievous gremlins, they take you down the wrong path and havoc ensues.
Waving a red flag against making assumptions is easy advice, but impractical, because in reality we make assumptions every hour of every day. We need to make assumptions and it is in our best interest to do so, most of the time. So, let’s understand how assumptions work and how to test them. Are you ready for an easy task? Quickly recall your zip code and your social security number. Go ahead and spin through those numbers. That was pretty easy. Now, try to recall those numbers in reverse order. Ah, not so easy, even though those numbers were just in your head. Let’s try another easy task. Do you recognize an image in the picture below? Of course, you do. Even though the picture is incomplete, you quickly discerned a pattern that allowed you to recognize or “see” Marilyn Monroe.
These mental exercises illustrate important points about how our mind works. First, memory is stored as a series of patterns, and we remember or recall information sequentially. When a young child hears, in a sing song voice, “A, B, C” their eyes light up and they recite the whole alphabet. Second, humans can quickly recognize patterns and make an interpretation (e.g., that image is Marilyn Monroe). Unfortunately, once we make an interpretation, we have a hard time seeing the pattern any other way. Remember the famous optical illusion, the picture that looks like either a young woman or an old woman. Once you see the old woman, you have a difficult time seeing the younger woman, and vice versa.
So, how does this mental process relate to making assumptions, and ultimately, to success and missteps in daily life? People are good at quickly connecting the dots; we draw meaning from incomplete information, and move forward based on the interpretation we’ve made. That is how assumptions are formed. Humans are in a constant state of anticipation, scanning and filling in the missing pieces. We see what is not yet there. Exposure and familiarity speed up the process, allowing humans to quickly grasp expected patterns. In a world that demands a speedy response but provides only snippets of information, the ability to create a whole from bits and pieces is a great asset.
But of course, there is a downside. The moment we assign meaning to what we perceive, a course is set—we begin to see, interpret and remember according to that course. The greater our familiarity, the more difficult it is to shift course. Ironically, experience and familiarity, the very assets that drive lightening quick recognition, are also foibles that make it difficult to recognize faulty assumptions. We expect a certain pattern, and we quickly confirm or see what we expect to see.
So, what steps can you take to recognize assumptions when you are faced with a complicated situation, problem or decision?
- Create Diversity. Make sure that people with different backgrounds are consulted because diversity creates a larger knowledge base. Diverse people will have access to very different patterns of information. They are likely to see or perceive situations in a novel way that thwarts unchallenged assumptions. Don’t go it alone or surround yourself with like minded people.
- Practice Tempered Humility. Be aware that your knowledge base (technical, cultural etc.) might be both your greatest strength and your greatest weakness. Expertise allows us to quickly scan our knowledge base and perceive information in a meaningful way. We can make assumptions quickly and use them effectively most of the time. But the Achilles heel of expertise is that expectations get set though repeated experience. We see what we expect to see. When we repeatedly see the old woman, the younger one becomes less accessible. Practice asking yourself what you are not seeing (or what you are missing). Tread cautiously in areas that most familiar.
For better and for worse, we are wired to anticipate the future. You will continue to make assumptions, it is an indelible human trait, and in most circumstances, all will go well. To improve your performance, take the time to see through the eyes of others and ask yourself if what you are seeing is really a fact or just a well worn perception.