The dangers of making assumptions in a changing world


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

Gladwell gives a tragic example of what can happen when we get our assumptions wrong:

Late one night, in February 1999, Amadou Diallo was sitting outside his apartment block in New York City when four police officers drove past. Deciding he looked suspicious, they backed up their car for a second look. When Diallo didn’t run, they assumed he must be challenging them: “How brazen this man is,” they thought as they got out of their car and walked towards him. And when Diallo reached into his pocket they assumed he was reaching for a gun, opened fire, and killed him instantly. Diallo, an immigrant from Guinea, had assumed the police were friendly. He was reaching for his wallet.

This is an extreme example but it illustrates the point: when we make assumptions the results can be disastrous.

You and I will hopefully never face a situation like the one Gladwell describes. But in a time of change, we can be sure that three things are increasing:

  • The pressure to take decisions in situations we haven’t encountered before
  • The likelihood that any assumptions we make will be based on the way the world used to work, not the way it works now
  • The size of the risks if we get our assumptions wrong

If we are to become antifragile, and use change to become stronger, we need to get better at spotting and checking our assumptions.

And we can do that if we learn to spot the eight most common types of mistaken assumptions:

  1. Value judgments (“He looks suspicious.”)
  2. Expectations and shoulds (“I expect him to run.” / “I should show them my ID.”)
  3. Making assumptions and jumping to conclusions (“He is reaching for a gun.” / “I am in America now, I can trust the police.”)
  4. Attachment to outcome
  5. Dependency
  6. Blinkered or extreme thinking
  7. Mistaking feelings for truth
  8. Blaming and scapegoating

The good news is that you and I will probably have more time than Diallo and the police officers did to check our assumptions. But this will only be useful if we put that time to good use.

In the future, do you expect the number of times when you might make a mistaken assumption to increase or decrease? Do you expect the consequences of making a mistaken assumption to be larger or smaller? Would it be useful to be able to spot your assumptions early, so that you can check them?

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

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