The dangers of making assumptions in a changing world

In his bestselling book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes how we all make assumptions, all the time.

Sometimes we get them 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.

You and I will hopefully never have to face a similar situation. But it illustrates the point: the consequences of a making mistaken assumption can be disastrous.

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

  • The need 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 consequences if we get our assumptions wrong

So if we want to become antifragile and use change to become stronger we need to get better at spotting and checking our assumptions. Have we got them right, or have we got them wrong?

We can learn to do this, and reduce our chance of getting it wrong, if we learn to spot the eight commonest 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 so I can trust the police.”)
  4. Attachment to a particular outcome
  5. Dependency (on the behaviour of others)
  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 to check our assumptions than Diallo and the police officers did. But that is only useful if we put the time to good use.

Over the next year, do you expect the number of times when you might make a mistaken assumption will increase or decrease? Do you expect the consequences to become bigger or smaller? Would it be useful to be able to spot your assumptions early, and avoid the negative consequences of getting your assumptions wrong?


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

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