Assumptions: Filling in the Gaps

An assumption is something we accept as true or certain, without much solid evidence. We all make assumptions and sometimes they can be useful – even necessary for survival. The problem is, we are often not even aware that we are making them.

When we are presented with an incomplete picture, our brains tend to automatically fill in the gaps. For example, the human eye has a blind spot at the optic disk and the brain interprets visual signals around it to complete what is missing. According to V. S. Ramachandran and D. Rogers-Ramachandran in their article in Scientific American on this subject, “The richness of our individual experience is largely illusory; we actually ‘see’ very little and rely on educated guesswork to do the rest.” Most of the time, we don’t realize that this is happening.

When we are preoccupied, distracted or running on automatic pilot, our minds rely on shortcuts and heuristics to draw fast and easy conclusions. In this mode, we also tend to operate according to our first impressions (primacy effect), which color our later interactions. This sort of automatic thinking may be useful when we need to conserve our energy or act quickly, but it also means our assumptions tend to be rife with errors. Breaking out of automatic pilot and being more mindful in our interactions takes effort, and in this busy world, we may not realize its worth the energy.

If we are afraid, we may have an unconscious agenda driving our interactions. According to Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of No One Understands You and What To Do About It, “that agenda is usually trying to determine one of three pieces of information about the perceived: Is this person trustworthy? Is this person useful to me? And does this person threaten my self-esteem?” When we are over-focused on these things, we miss other valuable information. Our view becomes very narrow and we tend to be biased to cherry-pick information that indicates danger.

There is also a difference between how others view us and how we think they view us. According to Nicholas Epley, author of Mindwise: Why We Misunderstand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want, this comes down to a perspective gap. He said, “We fundamentally view ourselves from a very different perspective than other people do… You’ve got all this information about yourself that other people just don’t have of you, and that creates an important perspective gap that makes it hard for us to know what others think of us.”

To compound this, even though we’d have to be psychic to really know another’s mind, human beings suffer from an overconfidence bias – research shows our belief in our own judgments exceeds their accuracy (Overconfidence Effect). And interestingly, the less we know, the more confident we tend to be (Dunning-Kruger Effect). So, each of us walks through life with a lot if information about ourselves that seems like it should be obvious, while those we interact with know very little about us and make assumptions. No wonder relationships can be so tricky!

Assumptions are the termites of relationships. – Henry Winkler

It can be an interesting experiment to notice our assumptions as they arise and then set them aside as we adopt a beginner’s mind. Sometimes our assumptions are confirmed, but many times we are surprised by what we observe. When we are able to see things as they are, we discover most things are much more complex than our minds want to make them. We like things to be certain and simple, so we create caricatures of people and narrate stories about situations that are overly black and white.

It can also be very interesting to observe what happens inside us when other people make assumptions about us. How does it feel? What happens in the body? What thoughts arise? Unless it is a person you trust who gets it spot on, it generally doesn’t feel very good. We prefer it when people are open-minded about us – when they show an interest, ask questions and listen. Awakening to our assumptions and shifting attention away from them so we can see things more clearly takes mindfulness. Cultivating mindfulness requires practice, but the results can be quite freeing and the benefits ripple out far beyond us.

Begin challenging your assumptions. Your assumptions are the windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile or the light won’t come in. – Alan Alda

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