An assumption is something that is taken for granted and believed to be true even without supporting evidence. Assumptions can be either conscious or unconscious. Particularly challenging are the unconscious or “implicit” assumptions that are held regarding groups of “other” people. For example, if your organization works with a mixture of paid employees and volunteers, there could be an implicit assumption for many that the paid employees are the real experts and therefore somehow ‘better’ at their role. Implicit assumptions are generally harder to identify and require deep self-awareness. Some hold implicit assumptions that there are racially based intellectual differences.
Where do assumptions come from?
Most personality traits, experiences, and backgrounds are normally distributed. This means that the people we meet in our daily interactions are more likely to be in the center of the bell curve than at either extreme. Yet, we remain susceptible to placing individuals, often those we don’t even know, into categories of the extreme. Why is this the case?
Often our assumptions are developed on the basis of experiences, real or dramatized, with others. For example, an actual victim of a violent crime may begin to develop unhealthy assumptions that other individuals that exhibit similarities such as race, gender, or even political leanings may pose a physical threat similar to the one experienced by their assailant. Similarly, a person may develop assumptions of unfamiliar groups based on what they observed portrayed in television, movies, or social media that they now attribute as real characteristics of people they have never met.
Assumptions are inherently human nature and can often be attributed to how we process information. As our brains process information, data becomes categorized into buckets for quick reference when needed. Our brains rely on this quick reference system to expedite information processing and queue responses. However, expedited responses may lead to harmful outcomes.
The dangers of assumptions…
Acting on implicit assumptions is a leading cause of unconscious discrimination. Those of us perpetuating unconscious discrimination are supporting the institutions and structures that disenfranchise people through the educational system, employment opportunities, living conditions, and much more.
As a result of implicit assumptions:
- Latino men are less likely to receive proper health care treatment for prostate cancer.
- African-American men are more likely to be pulled over by the police or possible victims of police-involved shooting while unarmed.
- Differently-abled individuals may not be capable of becoming full participants in our communities because of existing structural barriers that never considered their access and inclusion.
- What artificial boundaries are we removing to maximize the educational benefits of a diverse campus?
- What structures are we allowing to persist that reinforce assumptions and implicit bias?
- How much of what we believe about those considered to be in our groups is based on our experience with the individual vs the generalizations that we impose?
- Participate in Harvard’s Project Implicit to learn your tendencies on race, religion, sexuality, gender, and more. Note: your test results do not dictate how you interact with any particular group.