How your assumptions might be tripping you up

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Every day you make decisions about events, reports, people or products. Yet research indicates that 65% of these decisions will be wrong.

One reason is that most decisions rest on our tacit assumptions and these are often untested and even unconscious. What makes our assumptions so often wrong and how can we ensure better decisions?

Recently the Harvard Business School completed a study of decisions made by executives in over 100 major corporations over a period of three years. Their finding? Sixty-five percent of executive decisions were, in hindsight, wrong!

Other researchers have found similar percentages of mistakes in decision making in a wide range of areas. Why is it that after all the checks and balances we put around major business decisions, and the fabulous sums we pay people to make the right decisions, we so often get it wrong?

The reason is three-fold:

  1. We base our present decisions on the belief (usually mistaken) that the past is a guide to the future.
  2. Despite all rhetoric to the contrary decisions are based far more on emotions than facts.
  3. All decisions are based on assumptions and beliefs.

Let’s look at the science of assumptions and how we might recognize and correct for wrong ones.

According to research conducted by Harvard, 70% of all our assumptions are wrong. Case Western University’s recent research tells us that up to 90% of the assumptions we make about other people are wrong in some way.

Why do we cling so tenaciously to our assumptions, often resent having them challenged and even unconsciously twist facts to fit in with them?

Scientists have long known that strong emotions and hidden assumptions largely determine our actions, personality and decision making and that these assumptions are stored in the brain. Assumptions and beliefs are located in a little collection of neurons (brain cells) tucked away behind the ear.  These form what Eduardo llamas, a well-respected American neuroscientist, dubbed “the perceptual filter.”

This filter, or prism, is made up of assumptions and beliefs created by our past experiences and beliefs automatically passed on to us by others we regard highly, perhaps in childhood. At an unconscious level the filter selects and distorts all the sensory information. This explains why, as numerous studies have shown, we don’t really accurately remember an event even a few minutes after it occurs. Imagine if your visual ability worked in the same way and distorted the distance between your car and the curb—how would you stay on the road and avoid accidents?

So how do you avoid the car wreck of poor decisions? Acquire the discipline of identifying and checking your relevant assumptions and beliefs. Since we can’t really see our own filters, and therefore often don’t know what we don’t know, check out your thinking with others. The chances are you will have, if only slightly, different reactions. Even if their reactions are as subjective as yours, this will help you realize that your view of a situation is not the only one and explore other possibilities.

The other brain area that can derail objective decision-making, and that has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years, is the amygdala—the fear center of the brain. In this little part of the primitive “reptilian” brain are stored all the traumatic events that have ever happened to us—from putting our hand on a hot plate to being severely criticized by someone we admire or respect.

If the amygdala matches a current experience to a past danger it instantaneously hijacks the slower decision-making neural apparatus and galvanizes an immediate response—the flight, flight or freeze response.  All well and good for avoiding sabre tooth tigers but not great for strategic decision-making, particularly in sensitive situations. Often we react non-optimally with irritation, inaction or avoidance without even realizing that our amygdala is running the show.

There is very little you can do in the midst of an “amygdala hijack”: the best defense is prevention or retreat. You need someone you trust to gently help you see that your reaction is governed by a sense of immediate threat rather than a rational response. Studies have shown that just being in the presence of someone you trust can calm down the nervous system and prevent a panic reaction.

What all this means is that as authentic leaders and/or decision-makers we have to know ourselves very well. We have to work out what our assumptions are about people or situations and test them. On a deeper level, we must examine our lives to find those patterns of behavior, and of past decisions, which hint at deeper untested assumptions which we should be aware of and check. Most important, we must surround ourselves with people we can depend on to have, if not the right view, at least a different one, and so show us that ours may not be the only way.