How to 'catch' your assumptions

We often look at events in the real world and create stories to explain why they are the way they are. But do these stories reflect reality? 

We often look at events in the real world and create stories to explain why they are the way they are. But do these stories reflect reality? 

The answer is usually no.

In an insightful podcast episode, journalist Shankar Vedantam interviews Nobel Prize winner Abhijit Banerjee about his efforts to change the way we look at our beliefs and assumptions - by thinking like a scientist.

Assumptions have consequences

Most of us know that assumptions aren’t always accurate, however we don’t take the time to delve into them because they seem harmless. But our assumptions can have unintended consequences.

Banerjee tells a tale of his youth and how an assumption caused him to struggle in school. With two economics professors as parents, it was widely assumed that he had the same high level of intellect, however he often failed in his studies. 

Instead of seeing his failings for what they were, his teachers believed that they were the result of boredom; they believed he was so intelligent that what was being taught in the class was too simple to keep him engaged.

His teachers then promoted him to a higher grade, believing he would do well if he was further stimulated and challenged. “There was no reason to think that, but given that my parents were academics, their theory was that I must be able to do better,” Banerjee reflects. In this higher level class, he performed equally terribly and continued to fail. 

Banerjee’s teachers were doing something we all do constantly, trying to connect dots that may or may not be connected, and creating theories to get the pieces to fit together.

Seductive storytelling

We tend to make assumptions based on our values, but as Vedantam describes in the interview, these values can often obscure the truth. 

If we value the concept of family, we may hear stories that have come down through the generations and assume that they are true because we are seeing them through the lens of our value. We then go on to make more assumptions based on these stories, and we rarely question whether it is actually the truth.

When it comes to the stories of others, we actually tend to be quite critical; when it comes to our own, not so much. Banerjee states that, “It's so easy for us to see that the theories of our opponents are fanciful and misguided. It's so much harder to be skeptical of our own stories.”

Put it to the test

Throughout Banerjee’s career in economics, he grew tired of hearing so many different theories and arguments about why something was the way it was, without any evidence at all. 

He was often heard asking, “How do you know that’s true?”

With experimentation becoming common in medicine at the time, Banerjee decided to bring some of these valuable insights to the field of economics. Instead of arguing that one theory was better than the other, he encouraged his peers to conduct experiments to find out. 

He says, “I think anecdotes were trumping evidence till that point. The evidence really shut down the anecdotes. I think that was critical.”

Learning from our assumptions

Whilst we may not be able to conduct experiments for every one of the assumptions we hold in our lives, we can ask the question, “How do I know that’s true?”

We can look deeper into theories and statements to find the evidence. We can question what we read, or hear. 

It’s not about being intentionally over-cynical or distrusting, it’s about making sure that the ideas and beliefs we hold come from a place of truth, and not just from stories we’ve heard, or ideologies that have been passed down to us.

As renowned physicist Richard Feynman says, "The first rule is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."

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