#182 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 10          October 1995

What are You Assuming?
by David J. Stroup, Ph.D. and Robert D. Allen, Ph.D.

Dr. Stroup is professor of biology, Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina.  Dr. Allen is vice president of instructional services, Victor Valley College Victorville, California.  They run workshops on thinking skills instruction.

What stops you from solving problems?  Perhaps the overwhelming level of difficulty and complexity.  Perhaps the available information is insufficient.  Often, however, the major snag is the relatively simple task of identifying assumptions, which is an essential critical-thinking skill.

Assumptions are part of every planning process, every solution, and every interpretation.  Unfortunately, most people have a great deal of difficulty recognizing assumptions and understanding their critical role in problem solving.

In many instances, unrecognized assumptions can prevent us from approaching a solution to a problem.  For example, consider the following puzzle:

“A father and his son were out driving one night and came to a railroad crossing.  They attempted to cross the tracks but their car was struck by a train.  The father was killed immediately but the son was alive after the crash.  He was rushed to the emergency room of the local hospital.  The surgeon on duty took one look at the boy and said, ‘I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son!’”

How can the surgeon be the boy’s father if the father was killed?  If you unconsciously assume that all surgeons are male, then the contradiction will be insuperable.  In our experience, most people cannot solve this puzzle.  This is a critical issue because assumptions enter into all decision-making processes as illustrated in the model below:

Critical Thinking Model


Note:
*  Initial and entry position of knowledge
*  Interaction between knowledge and observations
*  Presence of assumptions
*  Distinction between observations and interpretations
*  Conditional nature of interpretations

In every decision-making activity, our prior knowledge must be combined with the unique parameters and requirements of the task.  Say the task requires prediction and planning, and that the planners incorporate assumptions such as “let us assume demand for the product remains stable.”  Or they may assume that  “the product will be readily accepted by the customer.”  These identified assumptions are critical for predicting outcomes.  Planners often go wrong.  Assumptions are present and must be identified and dealt with appropriately.  These are not just points of disagreement between planners and problem-solvers; they are real uncertainties that must be dealt with.

More often, we have difficulties identifying critical assumptions and in dealing with them.  Why?  Because a study showed about 50% of all incoming college students cannot define "assumption" correctly.  Webster’s defines it as “the supposition that something is true.  A statement taken for granted without evidence.”  But the public often uses the common-sense definition, “what we know as true.”  In other words, Webster’s correct definition and the incorrect common-sense definition are opposites. 

If these data properly represent the population as a whole, it’s not surprising that identifying assumptions is such a serious problem.  Indeed, many people will argue that interpretations or conclusions are assumed!!  For example, when examining the increasing use of electrical energy, it’s often concluded that much more energy will be used in 2010 than is used today.  Some planners will argue that the increased energy use in 2010 is assumed.  This is not so!  The conclusion is based on evidence that use has continually increased over the last 50 years.  Assumptions are made; such as technology improvements won’t decrease use, or conservation by consumers won’t reduce demand, or legislation won’t mandate reductions.  The problem-solving process has become muddled.  Often, the problem can be traced to the identification of assumptions.

Even beyond clarity of definition, assumptions seem to cause difficulty, perhaps because they reveal and admit uncertainty, and that causes discomfort.  People aim for the highest possible level of confidence.  However, there’s always some degree of uncertainty—the appropriate way to deal with this problem is to recognize and evaluate—not avoid and gloss over.  Many times, decision makers are so dedicated to gaining acceptance of a plan that they’re not open to the critical nature of assumptions.  Discussions can degenerate into emotional arguments over whether an assumption is or isn’t being made.  Instead, assumptions should be recognized and evaluated in an objective way.

In the workplace we offer the following advice:

1)  Make sure everybody understands the correct definition of "assumption."

2)  Determine what roles assumptions play in an argument, and work to identify them.

3)  Provide suitable mechanisms to overcome emotional resistance; assumptions should be dealt with objectively, not hidden or denied.

These simple steps will result in much improved solutions to problems and better planning.  Be aware of your assumptions!

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