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 these assumptions right, he says, and sometimes we get them wrong.

Then he 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.

Hopefully, you and I will never find ourselves in a situation like this. But it illustrates the point: the consequences of making mistaken assumptions can be disastrous.

And in this time of change, we know from experience that three things are increasing:

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

This means that if we want to become more antifragile, and use change to become stronger and more valuable, we need to become better at noticing and checking our assumptions.

This will enable us to take better actions.

Our first step to achieving this is to become better at spotting the eight commonest types of mistaken assumption we can make:

  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.” / “In America, I can trust the police.”) and then also:
  4. Emotional attachment to a particular outcome  
  5. Making our own actions dependent on the behaviour of others
  6. Blinkered or extreme thinking
  7. Mistaking our feelings for truth 
  8. Blaming and scapegoating 

The good news is that if we realise we are making one of these assumptions we will probably have more time to check it out than Amadou Diallo and the police officers did. And the negative consequences we face are likely to be less immediate and less severe. But this extra time will only be useful if we put it to good use, and use it to take better actions. This extra time will only be useful if we use it to check and spot our mistaken assumptions.

Over the next 12 months, do you expect that you will need to take more decisions or fewer decisions in situations you haven’t encountered before? Will the negative consequences of making a mistaken assumption be bigger or smaller? What steps are you taking to improve your ability to check and spot your mistaken assumptions?


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

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