Assumptions is the mother of all evils

People make assumptions. All the time. I absolutely hate it. I cannot stress how much it gives on my nerves. So much, that it was the reason for this blog to get off the ground after months of procrastination. After an argument I had with my sister, I was compelled to write this post explaining all my reasons why I believe assumptions are bad, and how things can be so much better if you stop living by them. I have seen people taking wrong choices, not going down the proper path, destroying whole relationships, all due to the evil thing called..assumption.

Before I dive into it, I want to make my target clear. I sincerely hope, with all my heart, that by the time you are done reading this, you will be more thoughtful about all the future assumptions you do, and when tomorrow comes and that assumption creeps into your judgement process and tries to take over the decision on what you are going to do next, a small voice in your head is gonna yell "This might not be trueee, is only an assumptionnn".

Let's do this.

The Problem

We need to identify the problem. You need to understand how many subconscious assumptions you constantly do in order to see the gravity of the issue. We will use a hypothetical real-life scenario to help us achieve that.

Background of the scenario

Full focus at a coffee shop
Photo by Tim Gouw / Unsplash

John works in Company Z. He was handed down a task that involves a certain amount of design work, which is usually quite challenging for him. Half way through the day, he realizes that he cannot deliver on time and could really use some help. He is lucky though that Maria is in his team and her design skills are by far the best he has seen around. Maria also happens to be very good and helpful person. She is always keen to help!

The playback

John looks over his open-plan desk to see if he can spot Maria.

Ah, there she is at her desk having coffee and reading the newspaper. Seems like a good time to pick her brains!

So John assumes she has some free time at her hands! He quickly rushes over and directly asks her to help with his task cause he is over his neck and can't make it in time. Maria gets startled as she was caught off-guard. She pauses for a second and with annoyed grin, she things to herself...

Half of the juniors on this team are complete slackers. They always come to me to get their job done.

Maria was taking a small break because she was waiting her manager to rush in any moment now with a list of changes she needs from her for the deliverable she gave him 20 minutes ago. Still, she does not want to say no to anyone asking for help, although she assumes that John just doesn't want to do the work himself and he is not really that pressed. After all, he asks for her help so often, it's only safe to assume he is the type of colleague to take advantage of others.

Ok I'll help you. I'll take a quick look...she replies

Maria starts working on what John requested. Her manager rushes in after 10 minutes. Maria, thinking she is half way through with John's task, keeps working on it. It ends up eating a full hour of her time to finish. She sends the result to John and resumes her actual work which is now already delayed. John, in a hurry to catch up with his deadline, throws her a quick "Thank you" reply and starts merging Maria's work with his own. After all, Maria knows how much he appreciates her help. He doesn't need to say so every time! or so he assumes...

The outcome (a quite possible one at least)

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM / Unsplash

Maria is completely frustrated about the delay John caused. Although she helped voluntarily, she feels unappreciated and that John took advantage of her kindness. John on the other hand, feels super grateful and happy for what Maria did. Because he is sure Maria enjoys helping people he also feels that Maria was happy to help and that she does not need a pat in the back. She knows how appreciated she is.

I think you can see where this is going to lead if you fast forward this 6/12/18 months in the future. Maria is eventually going to burst out of frustration. She is probably going to throw the blame to someone which could be John in our case. John is not gonna see it coming. He will probably think Maria is crazy with issues. And even though Maria took all that time to interact with John each time he needed her, instead of them building up to a good relationship, all that personal investment is going to straight out of the window.

So...what went wrong?

Maria & John assume to much. That's what went wrong! In every step of Maria's interaction with John, all the opportunities for that interaction to go smoother were present. John could ask her if she has free time. He could also notice her annoyed smile and think to himself, "Have I came in a bad time?" Maria could ask why exactly he cannot do it himself in order to verify the reasons behind his request, and possibly to offer explaining him what to do instead of doing it herself (after all, John looks up to Maria and does not see her as a person to take advantage of - although that could be the case in a different scenario). John could show his enormous appreciation explicitly, instead of assuming Maria does not require appreciation. And so on and so on...

But both of them made decisions solely based on their assumptions. People use assumptions as facts. And that's where everything gets fucked up. Because if you have your facts wrong, a lot of things can go sideways. And both of them had their facts wrong. They were sure it was the truth about the situation. Hence, they made all the wrong decisions.

People use assumptions as facts. And that's where everything gets fucked up.

By now it should be more clear that when I am talking about assumptions, what I really care about is for those assumptions that are actually related with other people and their feelings. I could have said so at the beginning, but the importance of this justified a slight deception in order to get you hooked. Cause the real truth is that there is such a thing as a good/smart/useful assumption which we wouldn't want to drop from our daily lives. So let's break down what an assumption really is and how you should be using them properly.

The definition of assumption

As the Cambridge dictionary specifies, assumption is a willingness to accept something as true without question or proof.

I am sure you can see where the inherent flaw in using assumptions resides. By accepting something as true without having proof, it automatically opens you up to a lot of possible mistakes. You find milk in the fridge. You assume is good for it to be there or else it was going to be in the trash already. You drinking it. You have stomachache after an hour. Apparently it was bad. If only you had check the expiration date (aka seek some proof for your initial assumption).

Assumptions are not bad in nature. On the contrary, they are very useful in our daily lives. If the house lights are off probably there is nobody in. If the time is 11am, probably the store is open. If the water is steaming, probably it's boiling.

Dangerous Vs Safe Assumptions

For none of the previous statements did we have proof of their correctness. Somebody might have been chilling in the living room in the dark. The store might be doing repair works and be closed today. The water could be steaming because...well this would require some crazy imagination to explain it otherwise (it could be liquid nitrogen that just came out of the freezer and not really water steaming, just saying). What deserves to be pointed out here is that in all the previous cases, seeking proof for your assumption might have been too troublesome, especially if it involves daily actions that most of the time you are going to get it right just by going with your best assumption. They are what I call safe assumptions.

So what makes an assumption safe or dangerous? Assumptions are automations humans build in their cognitive reasoning in order to take decisions faster based on years of experience and believe it or not, protect them for undesirable consequences. A 3 year old doesn't make assumptions. When it sees live fire, it does not assume it's dangerous. It seeks for proof. He puts that finger on the heating stove, feels the burn and pulls back crying. At that exact moment, a neural path gets created that says pretty much fire equals burn equals pain. Next time it sees fire, probably it's gonna assume it's dangerous and not touch it (even if it's a fake fire over a fake fireplace which is completely safe!).

By using assumptions, we can take faster, safer, better rewarding decisions all based on our past experiences. So when do things go south with this?

Assuming steaming water is boiling water is an easy one. Physics say that when the water goes to 100 degrees, it will start becoming steam. By observing the steam, you simply reverse engineer the fact and reach to the assumption the water is boiling. But what happens with complex situations? How well is someone equipped to make an assumption when things are not so straightforward?

I am not going to elaborate on complex business or work-related situations as the answer to that is easy: we usually seek the consultation of a domain expert that has the experience to make better assumptions than we do. We will rather turn our focus on the complex intra-person situations most commonly referred to us human relationships. Family, friend, love, work relationships. I would even take the jump to include all human-interactions, even the ones happening from previously-unknown parties that they've seen each other for the first time (e.g over the counter of a shop when you go to pay).

People are complex beings. Their thought process and subsequently their decision process is very complex. Just consider that we still haven't figured out how the brain really works although we have managed to reach Mars. So what makes you think that you are in the position of assuming what other people think? Each person thinks differently than you do hence the odds of any of your assumptions to be correct are mostly against you. Because when doing the act of assuming, you base your reasoning on what you know about the world. Regarding matters of physics, the underlying knowledge is shared among everyone, but matters regarding human behavior are affected from a bunch of factors like upbringing, past experiences, gender, social background, character, so most of the time you should consider your assumptions false rather than right.

You should be wary when assuming stuff about people motives, incentives and thoughts.

When and how to assume

Can you avoid assuming stuff? Not really. It's wired into you. It's the way your brain works to enable you to lead your life in this complex world.

Can you avoid acting solely based on your assumptions? Definitely! Can you also avoid assuming negative stuff (that you have zero proof about!)? Yes again!

Assumptions should be better seen as probabilistic scenarios instead of ones of certainty. Every time you need to take an action, or make a decision, you have to decide based on the data at hand. Obviously, most of the time we have limited information in our hands to be able to take a completely calculated decision. What we usually have, is data that indicate facts, but do not make them 100% certain. You see a room with a turned-off light. Probably the room is empty. To be completely certain the room is empty, you would actually have to go in and check if no-one else was sitting there in the dark, but you are good with your odds of being right without checking. If on the other hand you were playing hide and seek, the same safe assumption becomes a dangerous one, as someone might be lurking in there, so you should be better off going in and seek proof of emptiness instead of playing out on your assumption.

Assumptions relating to other people & avoiding a difficult world

The important point to be made is that when assuming things, be cognitive about the assumption you made. If you are risking too much with the said assumption, maybe refrain from acting on it and try to get more information instead. Yes, it might hinder the whole experience, but if the stakes are high, does it really worth it not asking a follow-up question to make sure your assumptions are correct? If Maria was to ask about John's underlying intentions, instead of assuming he is a slacker, she would actually find out that he admires her and he never realized that he was causing her frustration with his requests.

How can I go on if I have to assume all the possibilities in the world? And always ask clarifying questions about everything? This isn't working at all!

You cannot. At some point, you need to act. You cannot always ask clarifying questions or take the time to assume all the possibilities which anyway you are in no position to know whether they are true or not. Eventually, you will have to pick one of your assumptions (or a few of those) and act based on them.

So when you eventually act based on an assumption, be wary of what happens next. Seek feedback to verify that your assumption was indeed correct. You don't need to ask for it explicitly (although it never works out wrong if you do). It's evident in the other person's facial expression, his body language, the tone in her voice when she replied. By paying attention, you can be more receptive to subtle cues that might signify that your assumption was wrong and has lead to an undesirable effect, and take corrective measures immediately. Like John before, if he managed to notice Maria's immediate facial response, he might have thought that something was wrong, and try to understand what.

Assumptions have a value, and they are to function as a stepping-stone towards a next decision, when you do not have all the underlying information. As a counter-measure to dangerous/wrong assumptions, you could employ multiple assumptions. In that way, you allow yourself not to get locked on a wrong assumption (especially the negative ones) and instead leave room to multiple interpretations. Even if you choose to act accepting only one of those interpretations, you are still aware that other possibilities exist (cause you have already thought of them) and when new information come to light that might signify that your initial assumption was wrong, you can go back and work a different narrative in your mind prior moving forward. Let's check a super-simple example to make our point.

Our Maria has a best friend, Liza. Liza, had a dinner party last night with a few friends over on which Maria was not invited. Maria, out of pure luck, catches a photo from last night's dinner party from a common friend they have with Liza, on Instagram. Maria gets infuriated. Her best friend had a dinner party and she didn't just not invite her, she didn't even tell her! "You wanna be like that Liza? Fine! I won't invite you on Saturday for drinks!" says Maria to herself. Liza, gets upset next week for the exact same reason and thinks Maria does not want her friendship anymore so she avoids coming in touch with her next week out of spite. Eventually after a month of not talking to each other, they see each each other at a party and without really knowing why they stopped talking in the first place, turn around and walk in opposite directions.

Lisa never considered that Maria found out about the dinner party so she couldn't bring the pieces together. But she didn't even cross her mind that her assumption of Maria not liking her anymore was way too extreme to be correct. Maria on the other hand, was too fast judging her friend's motives on not inviting her and acting upon her assumption.

So what could have gone different if Maria has adopted our multi-assumption approach? The first assumption was probably unavoidable, since people tend to think the worst first.

Lisa didn't invite me cause she does not want me there. She is not the good friend I thought she is. She is a backstabbing b*tch!

But, could Maria be wrong in her assumption? Definitely. So enhanced Maria, proceeds with a secondary assumption:

But I though Liza is a good friend of mine. She might have her reasons for not inviting me. Let me look at this picture more closely...Aha! Georgia was there, and I hate Georgia. So maybe that's the reason...But again, why did she invite Georgia and not me? ...

Maria is again ready to jump back to the backstabbing b*tch reasoning...But she is a multi-assumptionist (cool term I coined), so she continues...

Ahem...Maybe she was trying to fix up Georgia to someone. I know Liza likes doing that and she told me Georgia has been feeling down after trying to get over her last breakup. Anyway, I can't really know for sure unless I ask her on Saturday when we meet. I am sure she will have some juicy news for me!

Wow, what happened there? The all-ready-to-go-to-bff-battle Maria managed to turn her flow of thought to something positive, purely because she allowed herself to think more of the situation than jumping on to the first assumption she made, as the definite truth. Was Liza a backstabbing b*tch? Maybe. Maybe not. PROBABLY not. They've been friends for so long after all, that Maria should have noticed by now. Was the assumption with Georgia correct? Again, she has zero proof for that and she is probably wrong again. But why would this assumption be any more wrong than the first one? Both could be equally correct. So focusing only on the negative one would be too dangerous to do!

The mistake with the initial assumption here is that Maria judged Liza purely from her own perspective (that of "I always invite my best friend to everything I plan") and came out with the conclusion that Liza does not deserve to be her best friend due to her mishap. You remember the saying "Things are not usually what they seem?". I think it's pretty much an attack on the first assumption everyone does which most of the times is based on internal fears, insecurity and selfishness, hence 9 out of 10 times IS BAD!.

Next time you do an assumption relating to someone's actions, check your self. Did you immediately assumed something bad or something good? I can bet my money on the first.

So how do I do this?

Building human relationships is a very slow process that starts with a single interaction and can go on for years. Assumptions are always made during the process. By taking the multi-assumption approach in your daily life, you will realize that most of the times you assume stuff, you could as easily assume something completely opposite (which can be equally true!) and it immediately makes your more mistake-proof in your day-to-day interactions.

Every wrong-assumption that you avoid, is another bullet you dodged in your efforts of creating potentially life-lasting relationships. Start avoiding those bullets and soon enough you are going to start feeling bulletproof!

When making assumptions, take them for what they are, assumptions, not facts!

Do you know someone that assumes too much (or too wrong?). Share this post to them now. Do not assume they will find it themselves!