The danger of making assumptions in a changing world

Toy figures that are almost but not all the same

We all make assumptions. We assume that if we set off by a certain time we will arrive by when we need to. We assume that if we behave in a certain way towards our colleagues, customers, family, and friends (and politicians) then they will behave in a certain way back to us. But in a time of churning, all of these assumptions might turn out to be wrong.

In his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes how we all make unconscious assumptions, all of the time. Sometimes we get them right, he said, and sometimes we get them wrong.

As an example of what can happen when we get an assumption wrong, Gladwell tells the tragic story of Amadou Diallo. Late one night in February 1999, Diallo was outside his apartment in New York City as four police officers drove past. They decided he looked suspicious. Backing up their car they were amazed to see he didn’t run from them: “How brazen this man is!” they thought. And then, as they started walking towards him, Diallo reached into his pocket. In that blink-of-an-eye the officers decided he was dangerous and opened fire, killing him. It turned out Diallo was reaching for his wallet.

This is an extreme example but it illustrates the point: when we assume a situation is going to turn out the way it did in the past, the results can be disastrous — for everyone.

In your life you will probably have more time to take decisions than these four officers did and the results of your choices will probably be less dramatic (though they might still affect the lives of tens or thousands of people). But the fact is that, in this time of churning, three things are all increasing:

  • the pressures to take these snap decisions
  • the negative consequences if we get them wrong, and
  • the likelihood that the assumptions we make are going to be based on a past that is not the same as the way things will work in the future

What this in turn means is that in this time of change it is worth paying special attention to the assumptions we might be making.

Chapter 2 of Inner Leadership describes the eight common types of mistaken assumptions ( or ‘mis-blinks’) we can all make, especially during times of change:

  1. Value judgments (“He looks suspicious.”)
  2. Shoulds and expectations (“He should be running away from us! How brazen of him that he is not!”)
  3. Making assumptions or jumping to conclusions (“He’s reaching for a gun.”)
  4. Attachment to outcome
  5. Dependency
  6. Blinkered or extreme thinking
  7. Mistaking feelings for truth
  8. Blaming and scapegoating

The book shows how to spot these mis-blinks and find alternative interpretations. Doing this helps us make better sense of a changing world, increases our confidence, and makes us more likely to achieve the results we want.

Do you ever make assumptions about what another person’s intentions are towards you, what a situation means, or how a situation is going to turn out? Are there negative consequences of getting this wrong? Would it be useful to know how to think this through more clearly?


Adapted from Inner Leadership: tools for building inspiration in times of change.

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