The assumptions we make
We live in a world where we have to constantly make predictions about the future and the behavior of other human beings with insufficient information. To cope with this unpredictability we make assumptions, hoping that those assumptions will come true. As we mature we get better at the assumption game. The more we become aware of the assumptions we make fewer will be the adverse consequences we will have to face.
· Assumptions are a form of judgment. We can assume that a person is stingy and never ask him for money. But unless you ask you will never know. Maybe the day you ask him he could be in a generous mood. In business, people often make the mistake of assuming they won’t get the price they demand. But when they ask and get it, they are pleasantly surprised. The same is the case when we are bargaining. We assume that the seller will not go down below a certain price. But unless you ask how do you know? It is our assumption that prevents us from asking. Always ask for a little more than what you assume they will give. Breaking the assumption habit is important.
· We often assume that only some people have solutions to our problems. We are hesitant to approach those whom we assume cannot help. But one never knows the depth of a person’s knowledge and experience unless we test their knowledge. In everyday conversation deep knowledge never surfaces. Serious matters may end up in disputes and generate controversy. So, we avoid them. We, therefore, end up with small talk on non-controversial subjects. We then assume the person we are talking to is not a deep person. But unless we test them, we will live with a false assumption and miss out on their knowledge and experience.
· One of the most dangerous assumptions is to believe that what one person can do, anyone in the world can do. Maybe in simple things. If a person could memorize a ten-digit number, anyone could do it. But this is not the case with musical talents. Neither is it in higher mathematics or physics. Not everyone is capable of understanding the theory of relativity or quantum mechanics. Everyone cannot become a statesman like Gandhi however hard they try. Some could, but not all will. All the conditions need to be right. Only a freedom struggle could throw up a person like Gandhi. Only great wars can throw up great military commanders. To generalize and say what one can do anyone can do is a mistaken assumption that gives false hopes and can lead people astray. We can do what we are good at, not what someone else is good at. Role models are for inspiration, not imitation.
· When it comes to personal health, many live on the assumption that the ailment they have is not serious and will go away by itself. We keep postponing and go to a doctor only when it gets worse. Time and again we do this. The same is true of mental health. People who are depressed don’t take help in the initial stages assuming that the depression is a temporary phenomenon and will disappear of its own accord. Whatever may be the reason for this behavior pattern, it is a dangerous assumption to live with. This assumption has a powerful grip on us and makes us live in denial. We have to come to terms with the fact that the body and mind do break down once in a while and there is nothing wrong in taking help from a professional.
· In the case of strained personal relationships, we often assume that it will get better over time, even if we continue to behave in the same way. Here assumption masquerades as false hope. Even as the relationship gets worse the assumption only gets stronger. The assumption puts a mask over reality and prevents us from seeing it. The mind lives in denial, as it is painful to face the truth. To overcome this denial we need to practice facing reality in all situations of life and go through the pain that these situations bring with them.
· In some cases we have to assume the best without having any evidence whatsoever. We have to assume that our children will do well and be happy in life. Otherwise, we will have no peace of mind.
· We often assume what others would be thinking. We run a dialogue inside our heads as to what they would say in a given situation. This dialogue is actually not what they would say but what we would be saying if we were in their shoes. Many a time this inner dialogue is negative. We assume the worst which does not happen or assume the best which also does not happen. It is best not to run this inner dialogue inside our heads as to what another is thinking. Take it as it comes.
· When it comes to our untried abilities and capabilities we often make ‘I am not good at it’ statements, even without trying or trying only a few times. After singing for a few seconds, we assume we can never sing. We need to assume that we have all abilities and qualities, only that they are underdeveloped. If we assume we don’t have an ability or quality, we are not being realistic. We just have not developed it sufficiently. All skills take time to develop. It cannot be learned in the first attempt. It may take many attempts. But we are quick to assume that we are not good at something after the first attempt. This is the case in many areas of life. Our first attempt becomes our last.
· On investments, we have to assume that anyone who promises huge returns within a short time is a con artist. This default assumption will save us a lot of money and heartburn.
· When it comes to time and distance we invariably make wrong assumptions. Ask anyone on the road where a place is and he will tell you it is close by and would take ten minutes to reach. You later discover it takes an hour and is quite far away. This is not anyone’s fault. We are not designed to judge distances and time correctly. Always double the time and distance anyone tells you. Similarly, the waiter at a restaurant will tell us that the table will be ready in ten minutes and we happily believe that assumption every time. We will then end up waiting for an hour.
· In a husband-wife relationship, the wife is often taken for granted. It is assumed that she will not mind even if she is not consulted. People who are taken for granted feel a loss of power. This is one area that causes considerable strain in marital relationships. There is a mistaken assumption that if you are ‘close’ to someone you can take him or her for granted. A most dangerous assumption to make. We can take no one for granted.
· All of us are genetically programmed with the inbuilt assumption that we will live a long life. This is life’s gift to us and we must honor it. There are people who keep saying life is short, life is uncertain and anything can happen, don’t take life for granted, and so on. But that is not how we feel and should not be feeling. We have to live in denial of death. There are others who say live as though this were the last day of your life. We just cannot imagine that. They want to create a sense of urgency so that we get over our laid-back attitude, but it cannot be done this way. If you really felt that this was the last day of your life you may have a panic attack.
· Similarly, we have to live with the assumption that the day will go well, that there will be no accidents, that we will not have a sudden heart attack, that we will not lose our job, or that our car will not break down in the middle of the road. If we start assuming such things, which could all very well happen, we will go crazy. Life will become unlivable.
· Another major source of conflict in relationships is to wrongly assume that someone deliberately, willfully and wantingly did something to us. A worried person absorbed in his own worries may not have noticed you on the street. Immediately the assumption is that he deliberately ignored and wanted to avoid me. This is one of the most common and dangerous assumptions one can ever make. The husband may have forgotten to mention a certain matter to his father-in-law but his wife may assume that he did it deliberately or was trying to avoid it. A student may have spontaneously chuckled at his teacher’s bad pronunciation but the teacher may assume he is deliberately insulting her. Such assumptions are common and strain relationships. We will never know the intention of another person unless we ask them. Unfortunately, even if they tell us we may not believe them. We would rather believe what our mind tells us.
· We have to live with certain assumptions in relationships. We have to assume that our parents, siblings, and spouse will not betray and lie to us or cheat us on money matters. If they do, we will be devastated. We cannot protect ourselves from everyone at all times. In life, we need someone to trust. We did not fail in our trust. They failed us. It does not reflect our poor judgment. We were also not wrong in our assumptions. We did the right thing. They did what they did and it caused us pain. When such things happen a relationship of forty years disappears in forty seconds. These kinds of wounds never heal. All that we can do is live with the pain and be compassionate with ourselves. This is the kind of pain that human beings have to go through, for no fault of theirs.
· One of the major assumptions in our society is that when something bad happens to us it is because of the bad deeds we have done in the past. This thought pattern is a socially conditioned belief and is very strong in our culture. The mind wants to know the cause for everything. Unfortunately, we have not been endowed with the faculty for discovering causes for everything. The only option we have is to train the mind not to seek causes that cannot be validated. We have to learn to live with our limitations, and be comfortable with the thought ‘I don’t know’. Otherwise, the mind will produce absurd, far-fetched, and highly self-critical causes to explain the bad happening.
· One of the major false assumptions we make is that people will act rationally and be reasonable. All economic models are based on the rationality assumption and that is why they fail. But the reality is that people act rationally only when it suits them. We are generally very disappointed when others don’t act rationally. We cannot understand why some people as so unreasonable, so insensitive, so uncaring, go back on their word and are full of double standards. These are not the traits of a reasonable person. But there are such people. This rationality assumption is the cause of much pain in relationships. What would happen if we chose not to assume that people will be rational and reasonable at all times? The emotional forces that drive a human being are more powerful than values and reason and most of us have not made values and reason strong enough to withstand those forces. Once we give up this rationality assumption we will have greater bandwidth to accommodate the irrational and unreasonable actions of others.
There is no point berating ourselves if we make wrong assumptions about people. It is not something that can be taught. We learn by observation and by making mistakes. It will take a long time to become mature in this area.
By and large, we can get away with all sorts of false assumptions in daily life. But when the stakes are high it becomes serious. The consequences and the price we may have to pay for our assumptions could be heavy. During such times it is better to pause, weigh the consequences, seek validation of our assumptions, and consult more experienced people.