What’s the use of assumptions?

We make assumptions hundreds of times a day. We make them when we enter a coffee shop. We make them when our paths cross. We make them when we receive an open-ended text from a friend.

The assumptions we make drive the decisions we make. Whether or not we choose to interact with someone is often based on the assumptions that we’ve made of them.

Flawed assumptions wreck our chances of meaningful connection, but accurate assumptions have the ability to help us wade through the seemingly endless number of choices we encounter.

We’re going to make assumptions, and understanding the role that assumptions play in our lives while working to improve the accuracy of those assumptions will lead us to more meaningful connections.

Assumptions, interaction, and the scientific method

We meet new people every day, and the catalyst for our encounters often revolves around our assumptions. Our mind employs some iteration of the scientific method; testing out several hypotheses as we move throughout our lives and modifying them as needed.

Our mind invokes the scientific method automatically in social encounters.
Hyp

These social heuristic hypotheses manifest themselves in the following fashion:

  • If—>Potential scenario
  • Then—>Expected outcome
  • Because—>Assumption

The assumption is a quick judgment call that we make based on what we perceive.

We think, “If I initiate a conversation with this person wearing a dolphin shirt, then we will both have a meaningful connection because I’m assuming this person shares the same love for dolphins as I do.”

Shirt

We think, “If I initiate a conversation with this person wearing a Mike Tyson shirt, then we won’t have anything to talk about because I don’t like Mike Tyson and I’m assuming we won’t get along because of that.”

These are extremely simplified, superficial examples, but they illustrate the process that occurs within our heads.

We often make these calculations with relative speed and ease, making assumptions in hopes of improving our chances of connection.

We make these of assumptions daily, and often times, they’re flat out wrong. When our assumptions are incorrect, our model is flawed. We end up approaching the dolphin-shirt wearing, espresso guzzling inhabitant of the cozy corner of your favorite coffee shop, causing us to miss out on the meaningful connection we may have made with the Mike Tyson fan.

Our assumptions are frequently rooted in subjectivity; we can’t necessarily explain it beyond the notion that we “felt” as though something might appear as the truth.

It may seem as though removing assumptions would be most beneficial to ensuring our connection and engagement with other people. While certain schools of thought (i.e. Stoicism and Buddhism) hint at this, not all assumptions should be thrown out.

There are clearly issues with our assumptions, but can our assumptions help improve our decision making? Can they help us create a more accurate model of the world?

Bayes’s theorem and the benefit of assumptions

Bayes’s Theorem is a simple formula used in statistics, and the formula can be used to examine the mechanics that take place within our minds when making quick judgment calls.

I’ll cover Bayes’s Theorem as it relates to social encounters in more depth in a future post. We’ll skip the formula for now; just understand that the gist of the Bayes’s Theorem is that it helps us think probabilistically, informing us of the likelihood that a hypothesis is true if some event occurs.

To illustrate this, let’s examine a simple example in which we’ll assume that you’re an avid Iron Maiden fan. It’s the first day of classes and you must decide who you’d like to sit next to in order to have the greatest chance of connecting with someone. Consider the following scenario:

You walk into a classroom and you observe three people. Person A is wearing a plain white tee shirt. Person B is wearing an Iron Maiden tee shirt. Person C is wearing a Justin Bieber tee shirt. Who do you sit next to?

Because you’re an avid fan of Iron Maiden and Person B is wearing an Iron Maiden tee shirt, you may opt to sit next to Person B. This is an example of our assumptions driving our decision making. Our mind interprets our assumptions as evidence, and when choosing who to sit next to, we revise our probabilities of connection based upon the assumptions that we make.

While a poor assumption can break a model, an accurate one can make significant improvements to a model’s outcome.

We should not throw out assumptions altogether, but rather we should work to understand the role they play decision-making making process and thus work to improve the assumptions that we do make.

Assumption Improvements

“Don’t judge a book by a cover” is a great maxim, but sometimes all we have is our assumptions. Sometimes all we have to go on is the cover of the book, and we must figure out how to make the most accurate assumptions in order to create a more accurate model of the world.

By improving the assumptions we make, whilst noting the flawed assumptions we make, our mental calculations of probabilities become much more accurate.

So how do we improve our assumptions?

1. Improve assumptions by expanding our knowledge base

The more we learn, the more we adept at understanding a situation we become. As we obtain more knowledge, we develop a greater understanding of the world. This allows us to make more accurate assumptions. Keep seeking knowledge.

2. Improve assumptions by understanding how our biases shape our perceptions

All of us succumb to bias, and working to understand which biases affect us most heavily can help us make better assumptions. Cognitive dissonance is real. Confirmation bias is real. Our decisions are shaped by our assumptions, and our assumptions are shaped by our cognitive biases. Learn to spot them and we can learn to bypass their inaccuracies.

3.Improve assumptions by understanding that’s all they are; assumptions

Assumptions are great until they’re not. When an assumption no longer provides an accurate depiction of the world around us, we must deliberately revise the assumption. Recognizing flawed assumptions is arguably more important than making accurate ones. Deconstruct your assumptions.

Our mind is more malleable than we think.
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