“Even your worst enemy cannot hurt you as much as your own thoughts”, said Buddha. Suppositions can also become our enemy, especially when we do not realize their existence but allow them to determine our decisions, mood and behavior.
The truth is that every day we make hundreds of suppositions, without realizing it. When we talk with a colleague, when we walk down the street, when we have a coffee, when we talk with our partner and even while we are shopping. We do not get rid of suppositions for a second, but this process occurs below our level of consciousness.
We suppose many things, but we are not aware of the influence of these assumptions on our happiness or mental balance.
What are suppositions?
Supposing implies to make conjectures based on the indications that we have, arriving at a conclusion that we take for granted, although there are good probabilities that it is not.
The danger of suppositions is that we turn them into facts in our mind. We do not question them but we assume them as an absolute truth without realizing that they are just one possibility within a wide range of options. Then those assumptions supplant the reality and we begin to react to the film that we are projecting in our mind, instead of sticking to the facts.
In order not to be deceived by this mechanism, we have to make clear some concepts:
Fact. It is to verify an event that has occurred.
Supposition. It is the act of taking something for granted without sufficient evidence.
Observation. It implies taking note of what happens, without judging.
Hypothesis. It is an idea to check.
Fact. Your partner arrived an hour late at the appointment.
Supposition. Frustration invades you and you suppose that he arrived late because he doesn’t care for you.
Observation. You notice him nervous.
Hypothesis. He could be cheating on you.
In this way we generate a drama by an erroneous assumption. Instead of testing a hypothesis or simply asking the cause of the delay, we move directly to the supposition and make it our new reality.
Why do we make so many suppositions?
We make suppositions constantly. We assume how others think, feel and act. The problem is that our brain hates uncertainty and chaos, as if it were an efficient secretary, loves to program, organize, classify and draw conclusions. In short, our brain wants to give a sense to the world that surrounds us and to the things that happen to us at all costs.
The problem begins when things do not make much sense, when we feel insecure and suspicious, or when we do not have all the information to draw relevant conclusions.
In those cases we desperately search for small signals from the environment that allow us to find an explanation. However, we are not able to objectively evaluate all these signals, but we choose the pieces of reality that serve to confirm the hypothesis that we like the most.
As soon as we reach a conclusion that satisfies us, we adopt it as valid. Then we begin to react to this new fiction, closing even to the evidence that shows us that it is not true. In fact, because our brain hates “cognitive dissonance”, we not only choose the “proofs” that support our hypothesis but we also close ourselves to arguments that can show us that our assumption is not valid.
In fact, a study conducted at the University of Lund showed that most people would reject their own arguments 60% of the time if they are presented by someone else. This mechanism is called “selective laziness” and refers to the tendency to evaluate with great attention the ideas of others but be much more careless with ours.
In short: we believe what we want to believe, and we close ourselves to the facts that show us that we could be wrong. That is the mechanism that produces and feeds suppositions.
The consequences of suppositions
Suppositions are the source of many discussions and conflicts in interpersonal relationships, because they make us start from an assumption that we believe is true but might not be. It also makes us adopt a more rigid and intransigent stance, closing ourselves to the reasons of others.
On the other hand, suppositions are a source of psychological distress. When we suppose something, our brain stops discriminating between reality and the assumption because it becomes our new reality. This leads us to make bad decisions or behave in a maladaptive way since we are not taking note of reality.
That loss of contact with the real world ends up causing emotional distress. In fact, the suppositions we make are often the fuel that feed frustration, anger, resentment, guilt and anxiety.
These suppositions are often a source of disappointment because they are the flame that feeds unreal expectations, especially when we expect things to go according to our plans or that people behave according to our rules and desires.
On the contrary, if we limit ourselves to take note of the world, instead of constantly making suppositions, we would live much relaxed.
Five exercises to stop supposing
Gary Klein, a psychologist at the University of Oakland, devoted himself to analyzing suppositions and discovered that half of people are not able to detect when they make assumptions. Most get caught up in their suppositions and mistaken beliefs, giving them for certain.
There is no doubt that to stop supposing is complicated because it is a natural mechanism, a deeply rooted tendency to look for answers and explanations. Therefore, the first step is to become aware of our suppositions.
We must remember to distinguish between facts, suppositions and hypotheses. Klein proposes some exercises that can be useful to train our thinking to detect suppositions:
- Discover the fault. It is about imagining that we are in front of a crystal ball. That magic ball shows us what has happened, but does not explain the reasons. Our task is to look for different hypotheses that can explain that fact. With this exercise we train our mind to expand the universe of possibilities, so that we feel more comfortable with cognitive dissonance.
- Detect weak signals. It is a variation of the previous exercise. It is about visualizing the problem, but this time trying to notice the subtle signs or warnings that indicated that we were going astray and that we decided to ignore. With this retrospective exercise we train our mind to be more sensitive to all kinds of clues and signals, not just those that confirm our expectations and vision of the world.
- Look for contradictions. In this case, we must take that concern/supposition that is affecting us and put it to trial. We imagine that we are a prosecutor who must find the weak points of our own case and convince them of a jury. What inconsistencies or contradictions would we find in our argument? How else could it be presented? This exercise will help us get out of our limited perspective by assuming a psychological distance that allows us to detect wrong beliefs and details that do not fit into our version of things.
- Speculate about the possibilities. We imagine something that we would like to do in the coming days, preferably with other people, such as a trip to another city or going to see a movie at the cinema. Next, we must leave our minds free to speculate about all the things that could happen and change our plan. With this exercise we understand that there are a thousand chances that things could change, so we open ourselves to uncertainty and we will be less prone to make suppositions.
- Ask. Perhaps it is the most powerful exercise of all to stop supposing. When we have doubts, we simply ask, consult the others and ask for their opinion. In this way we will expand our horizon and include other perspectives. If we think that someone looks at us strangely, we should not suppose he hates us falling into paranoia, we simply ask. Sometimes life can be very simple, we are those who complicate it.
Trouche, E. et. Al. (2015) The Selective Laziness of Reasoning. Cognitive Science; 1-15.
Klein, G. (2014) Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights. Londres: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.