The dangers of making assumptions in a changing world

Toy figures that are almost but not all the same

In his bestselling book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell explains how we all make assumptions, all 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 assume a situation is going to turn out the same way it did in the past, the results can be disastrous.

In this time of churning that we are living through means that three things are increasing:

  1. The need to take snap decisions in situations we haven’t encountered before
  2. The likelihood that any assumptions we make will be based on the way the world used to work, which is not the way it works now
  3. The negative consequences if we get our assumptions wrong

If we want to become antifragile, and use change to become stronger, we need to learn to quickly spot and avoid the eight common mistaken assumptions we can easily make in a time of change:

  1. Value judgments (“He looks suspicious.”)
  2. Expectations and shoulds (“I expect him to run.” “I should show them my ID.”)
  3. Making assumptions or 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 we will probably have more time than Diallo and the police officers to check our assumptions. But this will only be useful if we use that time to do so.

Have you ever made an assumption that turned out to be wrong? What were the consequences? In the future, do you expect the consequences of making wrong assumptions to get bigger or smaller? Would it be useful for you to have a way to spot and think through your assumptions, quickly and clearly?


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

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