Are you sure that’s a fact?

Learning to avoid using our assumptions as facts

Why is it so easy to let generalisations and assumptions drive so many of our decisions? How do we avoid making assumptions?

Due to the limited nature of the human working memory, we use generalisations and other mental shorthand to organise information. This helps us to access our understanding and conclusions more quickly in order to make decisions or respond to situations.

While this is a useful process, it can have its downsides. Mona Patel described this really well in her 2015 book Reframe:

Many times, the problem is that we believe that beliefs and opinions are true and treat them as facts and even irrefutable laws. These turn into mental blocks and prevent us from seeing any space in which to innovate. Mona Patel, Reframe: Shift the Way you Work, Innovate and Think

This doesn’t just apply to innovation. It applies to opportunity in general. It can also apply to how we interact with our fellow humans. A little closer examination of things we treat like facts could have a huge influence on our behaviour, and from our behaviour, our culture and our ability to tolerate difference. Increasing our ability to avoid assumptions may be a powerful force for good.

Reframing our assumptions (Photo by Khaled Reese from Pexels)

How hot is hot enough for the beach?

Here in Australia, we are coming into summer. Soon it will be hot enough for the beach. Today it is forecast to be a maximum of 28°C (82.4°F). For some people that probably is hot enough for the beach. For me, I know the air temperature is probably not hot enough to offset the fact the ocean will still be cold.

How hot is hot enough for the beach? (Google Weather)

So for me, I could easily consider 28°C factually too cold for the beach. Some of you may already be itching to tell me that is definitely hot enough for the beach. Particularly if you come from somewhere with a colder climate than Western Australia.

Despite the fact that the temperature on a particular day can be factually measured and that it’s widely accepted that the warmer it is, usually the better the beach is. However, each person’s experience of temperature is pretty subjective. And it can change over time. If I spent a few years living in Sweden for example, I might start to consider 28°C definitely hot enough for the beach.

Did you notice something else? I assumed that the hotter the temperature, the more likely it is people will want to be at the beach, because it’s widely accepted. Even that is not a fact. Like “how hot is hot enough for the beach”, it is actually an opinion.

It’s important to remember that even things that are widely accepted aren’t necessarily facts. They can be highly reliable predictors and useful for making decisions, but at the end of the day, they are still opinions.

Facts vs things we use like facts

Now, the ideal temperature for beach-going is a fairly non-controversial topic. It may have some impact on some businesses. And delving below the surface may provide opportunities to innovate. What opportunities might there be if you consider that some people enjoy the beach on colder days?

What about bigger issues? Let’s look at a few potential facts:

  1. If you’re tall, you are good at basketball.

  2. The more levels of higher education someone has completed, the smarter they are.

  3. The way someone votes tells me if they are a good parent or not.

  4. The colour of someone’s skin determines how successful they will be.

  5. If you’re a woman, you will need a career break to have children.

  6. If you hold the same religious beliefs as me, I can trust you.

Which of these are facts? None of them.

Which are opinions we treat as facts?

How do we stop treating opinions as facts?

There’s a lot to be gained if we can avoid treating assumptions as facts. But sometimes these thoughts, generalisations and opinion’s influence our behaviour so automatically we aren’t even aware it’s happening. Plus, challenging these assumptions can be incredibly uncomfortable, even on some of the less controversial topics. Realising we have been operating on an assumption often feels a lot like being wrong, which is something few people like.

In her book, Mona Patel describes a method for calling out the opinion-fact fallacy in an innovation process. However, I think this practice can unlock all kinds of change and new thinking. It may open you to working with someone different, responding differently when someone has an opinion different from yours, or even enable you to create healthier self-talk patterns.

Mona’s “What I Know” Exercise

The process Mona describes in her Reframework (Reframe, chapter 7) is a useful tool to avoid assumptions in many areas of life.

First, within your problem space, brain dump every constraint or limitation you can think of. This is as simple as writing a list. If you need a launching off point, try asking “Why not?” and writing down your answers. Bringing this into the context of inclusivity, consider if you are responsible for a hiring decision, or even choosing a team for a particular project. Are there people you don’t want to select for the role? Try asking “why not?” about your decision not to include them.

Secondly, Mona suggests writing the letter “F” against each item in your list that you consider is factual. Now, one thing you might discover at this point is that you’ve written down some items that are factual in themselves. However, the causal relationship you’re drawing between the fact and the decision you are making may not be factual. In our hiring example, you may write down that the individual has only two years’ experience in the industry and not five. That may be a fact, but does that mean it is also a fact that they are not the right fit for the role? Perhaps not.

The next step in Mona’s process is to go back over each item that you marked with an “F” and critically assess whether it truly is a fact. She recommends that sometimes research is required at this point, to challenge our thinking. Often when undertaking this process, we might realise that we hold assumptions and opinions about a topic and we cannot even trace where we learnt that view.

Once you have inventoried the facts and opinions, consider which ones you still want to rely on for making your decision. You may or may not identify new points of view that you carry forward into the choice you make.

Training yourself to avoid assumptions

This is a fairly lengthy process to go through and isn’t practical to do for every decision you make. However, practicing it on some decisions will strengthen your ability to spot your own assumptions. It will warm your brain up to the idea that not every mental shortcut is worth taking. Perhaps when we are filtering through 100s of applications for a role, filtering by years of experience is a reasonable shortcut to reduce the time needed to fill a role. This is necessary. However, the important thing is to recognise our shortcuts for what they are.

The intent of this approach is also not to convince yourself to change your opinions and find the factual “right answer”. Often that can just devolve into hours of unhelpful debate with strangers on the internet. Further, in some scenarios, there are no facts that unanimously result in the right decision every time. Not every part of life can run to a script.

This exercise instead trains you to be conscious of when you are making decisions using assumptions or opinions rather than facts. And when we become accustomed to doing that, we can reduce our knee-jerk reactions to situations where our assumptions lead us into the wrong course of action. This helps unlock creativity, humility, and understanding.

#inclusivity #integrity #selfawareness #values