#182 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 10
are You Assuming?
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
part of every planning process, every solution, and every
most people have a great deal of difficulty recognizing
assumptions and understanding their critical role in problem
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
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
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
often go wrong. Assumptions
are present and must be identified and dealt with
are not just points of disagreement between planners and
problem-solvers; they are real uncertainties that must be
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
clarity of definition, assumptions seem to cause difficulty,
perhaps because they reveal and admit uncertainty, and that causes
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
In the workplace
we offer the following advice:
Make sure everybody understands the correct definition of
Determine what roles assumptions play in an argument, and
work to identify them.
Provide suitable mechanisms to overcome emotional
resistance; assumptions should be dealt with objectively, not
hidden or denied.
steps will result in much improved solutions to problems and
better planning. Be
aware of your assumptions!