Barrier to insight is holding on to flawed assumptions (about voc. ed. & training)

assume

People trap themselves all the time in interpersonal relations, making unwarranted assumptions. In business and military settings, decision makers fail to notice how a small shift in events or capabilities renders their assumptions obsolete. As a result, they miss opportunities and take too long to wake up.

by Gary Klein Ph.D. on Oct 29, 2013 in Seeing What Others Don’t, http://bit.ly/1PJtb6W

My research project (Seeing What Others Don’t, 2013) examined 120 examples of insight to try to find some common themes. The one unifying theme was that insights involved a shift in core beliefs. Usually people had to give up a flawed belief. Sometimes, people were aware of the belief but didn’t know it was flawed, so the insight centered on the discovery of their folly.

But in 52 cases, almost half of the sample, the people were unaware of their assumption or belief until the insight struck. Some proponents of critical thinking have noticed how often people get trapped by flawed beliefs and recommend that decision makers list all of their assumptions up front, in order to detect the faulty ones. I am not aware of any evidence that listing assumptions results in better reasoning, so I think this assumption-listing strategy is bad advice. Even worse, if the person is unaware of the assumptions—if they are hidden —then there is no way to list them.

I used the 9-dot problem as an example in my previous entry, Helping People Gain Insights. The task is to connect 9 dots, arranged in a 3×3 grid, using only four lines. People get stuck because they assume that their lines have to stay within the grid, and that their pen can only change directions on a dot. We’re not aware that we’re making these assumptions, so how could we list them?

People trap themselves all the time in interpersonal relations, making unwarranted assumptions. In business and military settings, decision makers fail to notice how a small shift in events or capabilities renders their assumptions obsolete. As a result, they miss opportunities and take too long to wake up.

How can we spot these hidden assumptions?

(1) Shifting our perspective. In my entry “Mind-Stretchers,” I described five ways to escape from assumptions that might be trapping us. These exercises are to: imagine failures, imagine that we have been ignoring subtle clues, pretend we are a competitor, pretend we are a replacement taking over without all the emotional baggage that we’ve accumulated, and to switch positions during an argument or debate.

(2) Contradictions. If we run into an inconsistency, instead of explaining it away we might take it seriously and see where that takes us. It might take us to a discovery about a flawed belief we’ve been attached to.

(3) Ceasing to resist. When we have a good idea but run into resistance from others, we naturally try to push back. But we can also listen to the concerns—they may reveal a hidden assumption that is blinding us.

(4) Sizing up the problem. When we run into an inconsistency, perhaps we should take a little time to gauge just how common it is. If it is part of a larger trend we might give it more credence and examine it more closely to see what we can learn. If we do hold a flawed assumption then we’ll be explaining away more and more inconsistent evidence.

(5) Speculating about opportunities. Some people like to do hypothetical reasoning—daydreaming about possibilities. Unexpected opportunities give us the chance to imagine what could work differently now, and to escape from hidden assumptions about how things are supposed to work.

(6) Desperation review. When we are stuck and need to escape, a natural strategy is to critically question our assumptions—and perhaps to stumble upon beliefs that are so ingrained that we’re not even aware of them.

None of these strategies are guaranteed, obviously, but I think each of them offers us some chance to surface the hidden assumptions that can trap us.

 

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