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Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Assumptions

Mr Eugene Lewis Fordsworthe is responsible for a famous quote: "The assumption is the mother of all mistakes". Yet, usually life does not provide us with complete, correct and timely information at the moment we actually need it. Assumptions fill the gaps. In general, our minds are quite capable of filling these gaps. This was eloquently demonstrated by the clinical neuropsychologist prof. dr. Erik Scherder in his 3 master classes on the working of the brain on Dutch TV.

Recently, I made the following Facebook posting: "I think I may have made a big mistake and I'm correcting it now............". My big mistake was the result of assumptions which I had used to come to a certain conclusion. Several people replied. Only one person made the correct assumptions and understood the deeper implications of this sentence. 

For several weeks, I had been convinced of the validity of my assumptions as they made perfect sense to me. Not to the other person involved. I was quite stubborn in my convictions, especially as my assumptions were firmly rooted in my fears. As Francois de la Rochefoucauld would say: “We promise according to our hopes and perform according to our fears.” 

Interestingly, the opinions which I had assumed to be principles and which had triggered some of my fears, were actually just assumptions based upon cultural taboos and personal inexperience. This is were things got dangerous: assumptions based upon assumptions. The political and military danger of such a situation is well illustrated by a Jack Ryan movie called "The sum of all fears". In this Tom Clancy novel, Russia and the USA both assume that they are under attack by the other party while an unknown 3rd party is actually manipulating their behaviour. The scene in which both presidents consider their military response, based upon the assumed behaviour of the other, is thrilling.

The idea behind this novel is far from unrealistic. Quite often 3rd parties manipulate our behaviour to drive two close parties apart (e.g., relationships, business deals). Remarkably, we tend not to assume that this 3rd party is lying to us. We tend to assume that they are indeed warning us, as they claim. Triggering fears is an excellent manipulator. Fears blind us from other (contradicting) information. 

Assuming that people lie to you is also quite a tiresome habit which is probably one of the reasons that we don't assume this. Another reason is that lying is "bad" and we expect "good" behaviour. Given my personal and business background I do assume hidden agendas and I always consider ulterior motives. In the absence of any ulterior motive, I assumed that the aforementioned opinions were actually strong principles.

How did this dilemma get resolved? After a few weeks of silence and stubbornness, I ultimately gave in and talked back again. I decided to test the other person by playing a mind game. The outcome of that process was far better than I had assumed. Several other decisions followed subsequently.

In essence:
The assumption is the mother of all mistakes (Eugene Lewis Fordsworthe). 
Trust but verify (Ronald Reagan).
All is well that ends well (title of a play by William Shakespeare).