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. And when Diallo reached into his pocket as they walked towards him, they assumed he was reaching for a gun. Opening fire, they 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.

And in this time of churning, three things are all increasing:

  • The pressures to take these snap decisions
  • The likelihood that the assumptions we make will be based on the way the world used to work, not the way it works now
  • The negative consequences if we get our assumptions wrong

Chapter 2 describes how to spot and avoid the eight common mistaken assumptions we can easily make in a time of change:

  1. Value judgments (“He looks suspicious.”)
  2. Shoulds and expectations (“I expect him to run.” “I should show them ID.”)
  3. Making assumptions or jumping to conclusions (“He is 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 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 take the time to do so.

Have you ever made an assumption that turned out to be wrong? What were the consequences? Do you think that, in the future, the risks and consequences of mistaken assumptions will get better or worse? Would you find it useful to have a way to 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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