Someone asked me a few weeks ago, “Were you a cheerleader in high school, someone who was popular?” “No” I replied. “Well, I just can’t figure you out” she said.
That exchange keeps wafting through my mind. At the time, I was astounded that someone could think I was a cheerleader or one of the “in crowd.” Upon reflection, the reason I keep coming back to that exchange is because of the assumptions that underlie the question as well as my reaction.
I was surprised that anyone would assume I was a cheerleader because of my mental model of cheerleaders, e.g. extroverted, smiling and laughing, have many friends, active in sports, always had a date, earned good grades. (I did earn good grades in school.)
How would my current behavior lead someone to make a connection with the behavior of cheerleaders? Assumptions are the foundation for most of our mental models or mindsets.
Our brains are wired to quickly make assumptions based upon minimal data. We make thousands of instant assessments every day. Our ancestors needed to quickly absorb information and generate instantaneous decisions to ensure their survival. This “quick draw” mechanism is responsible for the ubiquitous assumptions we make daily.
What served our ancestors so well for survival is not helpful when it comes to relationships and connection with others. With each initial assumption, the brain searches for data, and memories of experiences that match, support, and validate the assumption.
New neural connections are made to existing pathways and presto-chango! We have a mindset. The more we connect bits of information (the way a person looks, sounds, moves, etc.) and our existing data, the more the current neural connections and therefore the mindset is strengthened.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we want to ignore our assumptions. When your “Spidey sense” begins to tingle or the hair on the back of your neck stands up, that’s a warning that something isn’t quite right, and you want to pay attention! You may need to extricate yourself from a situation.
What I am suggesting, is that you become mindful of your assumptions and question your mindsets. Examine your automatic thoughts regarding a person or situation. The brain pays more attention to meaning than it does to detail, another survival skill that clouds our ability to see people and events with clarity. We assign meaning before we have all the facts.
As annoying as it can be at times, we don’t want the brain to stop making instant assessments. Seeing movement in your peripheral vision and hitting the brakes is a good thing, if it helps you avoid an accident.
Here’s an easy method to begin to challenge your automatic thoughts. Notice if you use these words in your internal or external dialogue:
Use of words that signify an absolute state reinforce mindsets that are limiting. For example, “John always says leaves his dirty clothes on the floor,” indicates that John has no other way of behaving. When John does manage to toss his dirty clothes in the laundry basket, it won’t be noticed or acknowledged, due to the mindset.
That’s a simple example. What if your assumption (and therefore mindset) is “I’ll never be able to find a job!”? Or, “Every time I get into a meaningful relationship, I screw it up!” Or “I am always disappointed by my family!”
It may seem like a leap to go from assumption to mindset. However, if you challenge a mindset and ask: “What’s behind that perspective?” you will find one if not more assumptions.
When you hear any other “absolute” words come out of your mouth or roll around in your mind, ask yourself, “Is it really true?” Has there been a time it hasn’t happened? How might this be a generalization? How might there be other situations, other data to refute this? What could you be missing based upon limited data or an assumption?
Although the brain is plastic (meaning it is flexible and can re-wire itself), we can’t change the reality that our brains make instantaneous assumptions. That is hard-wired in our brain. By understanding that immediate assumptions are normal, we can give ourselves grace and then open ourselves up to more possibilities by examining carefully our assumptions and mindsets.
We all make assumptions based on little data. I practice challenging my assumptions to help expand my worldview. How about you?