Mastering The Fine Art Of Questioning Our Assumptions

Information is coming at us at the speed of light every moment of our day. There is an endless supply of news feeds, social media posts, emails and messages clambering for our attention all the time. No one can give their full attention to all this data.  This avalanche of information requires that we prioritize what gets our attention. Therefore, we quickly judge an email by the subject line, a news article by the headline or a social post by the graphic. We hastily make decisions about what is valuable, informative, or useful to us. We judge content at the speed of light. This daily processing of information requires making hasty judgments and assumptions based on incomplete information. The result is that we are continuously forming inaccurate perceptions based on scant data and further reinforcing unfair biases in our thinking.

The point is, we often get things wrong, especially when we are in a rush, or are not paying close attention. Our perceptions are usually inaccurate. When we are moving at speed through the level of information that crosses our path daily, we do not take the time to get to the truth of the matter. We read a terrible news story and often assume the worst about the people involved, without stopping to consider any other sides of the story. We very rarely pause long enough to think about any intentional or misleading bias in the story we have read. Instead, we jump to conclusions about the story and the people in it, often forming assumptions about an entire race, political party or internet group based solely on the unfortunate actions of a few, in a news story with a headline written to hold our short attention span.

We are drawn to stories which trigger an emotional reaction.  Especially those that enrage or anger us. When we scroll through a website, we are picking the articles to read based on the headlines that cause a reaction in us.  We often pay more attention to emotionally triggering negative information and are more likely to read about a disaster than a good news story. Likewise, on a social platform, shocking graphics or anger-inducing posts will always get more attention, comments and engagement. It is only human nature.

With all this scrolling and assumption making, we position ourselves firmly on one side of an issue. And, once we have made our mind up about our position on this issue, we actively seek confirmation that our position is correct. This confirmation bias ensures we engage with and read more information that reflects our point of view. We don’t have the time to canvas opposing opinions or read articles that contradict our view.

What can we do about this?

First, we can cut back on the scrolling through social media posts, turn off alerts for a while and limit our screen time. We don’t need to be constantly updated on what is happening around the world in real-time.

We can learn to pause before assuming the worst about a person or group of people in a situation we read about online. It is better to accept that we do not know the full story. Remember that the story will, without a doubt continue to evolve as more information comes out. So have some empathy for the people featuring in an alarming news story, they are complex human beings, and their part in the story is rarely as one-dimensional as a news headline would have us believe.

Beyond the individuals in a story, we must remember that every group is made up of unique individuals with vastly different views, goals, ethics and opinions. Despite what some online content would have us believe, there is no completely homogenous organization or nation in the world.  Even the most well-organized group does not have the all-encompassing power to force all members to think and act the same way. It doesn’t happen that way, so let’s not judge an entire group by the actions of a few. If you have formed an opinion about a group of people, allow these biases to be challenged and questioned. It is perfectly ok to find you are wrong about something, even if that point of view is a long-held one.

Finally, push through the information overload to find positive stories. Yes, you may have to scroll to the bottom of the news feed to find a good news story, but find them, read them and share them all around.

Begin challenging your own assumptions. Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.     

Alan Alda