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What we think we know is dangerous

In this spontaneous video from his office Craig tells a story about cookies and a story about missiles and he explains the role of assumptions in each story. He explains how assumptions are easy but how they almost always get us into trouble.

Here’s what Craig says in the video

Hey everybody! It’s Craig Freshley here. I’m outside my office. Here we are walking in to the office….pretty nice place.

I want to tell you about a concept called “what we think we know is dangerous.” And I want to show you a picture. Here it is on my laptop. This is a picture….I’m going to tell you about this in a minute. Let me read this, it says, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance it is the illusion of knowledge.” This quote was by Stephen Hawking and let me tell you where I got this quote.

This is from a wall at Clarkson University. Now my niece is a student at Clarkson University and I was visiting her not too long ago. She was showing me a little tour of the campus there and I saw that quote on the wall and I just had to take a picture! “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” It’s what we think we know that’s the most dangerous!

Now I’ve written on this topic quite a lot and recently I heard a story that illustrates this concept a little bit. So I’m going to tell you the story. Actually I’m going to tell you a couple stories and I’m going to tell you why this concept is so important to any kind of group making good decisions.

So here’s the little story. Now I was flipping through the channels on the TV one day and I came across Wayne Dyer. You may have heard of Wayne Dyer. He’s written a lot of books, he’s a pretty prominent speaker, he has just lots of good advice about like how to live life right and he told this little story about a woman who was taking an airplane trip.

She was a little nervous about flying and she didn’t fly that often and you know, she needed to make sure that she had everything in her bags and she got to the airport way ahead of time. She got through security, made her way to the gate, and she had like, you know, 45 minutes before they were going to start boarding the plane.

So she went she bought a little bag of cookies and she thought, you know, she would give herself a little treat before she gets on her plane. So there she is sitting in the gate area and she’s got the cookies beside her and lo and behold the guy next to her in the gray suit reached over and took one of her cookies! Well she didn’t really know what to do but she decided not to confront him or anything. She was nervous enough about, you know, the whole flying thing and stuff, so you know, she took a cookie and just sort of went on with reading her book there. And he took another cookie! She took a cookie. And he took another cookie. She’s thinking to herself, what’s going on here? What is this?

Well so it turns out that, you know, while she was reading her book she ate about half of the cookies but he ate about half of the cookies. And then it came time to where they were calling for her gate and she was, you know, getting up and getting her scarf and getting her personal stuff and there was one cookie left. And she wondered, “Is he going to eat the last cookie or is he going to let me have it?” And sure enough he made eye-contact with her and he gestured that she should have the last cookie. Well of course, you know, she took the last cookie and she kind of huffed off and threw the wrapping away and went and got in line in and boarded the plane.

And 45 minutes later onboard reading her novel she was still distracted by this thing that had happened. The gall of that guy! Is this what people do in airports now when food is sitting on the table next to you? It’s okay just to take it? And she reached into her bag to put away her novel and there she noticed her pack of cookies. And she realized for the first time; she realize that the pack of cookies sitting on the table beside her belonged to the guy in the gray suit and she was the one who had been taking cookies without permission.

She made an assumption. She thought she knew that those cookies were hers. But in fact they weren’t. And based on her false assumption she made some bad and erroneous judgments against this guy. She made him out to be a bad guy.

That’s one of the ways of how what we think we know what can get us into trouble. How it can be dangerous. Sometimes it can be really dangerous, it can lead to like, you know, hand-to-hand combat and it can lead to war!

I remember when I was in graduate school we read this book: Thinking In Time by Neustadt and May. This is a great book: “the uses of history for decision-makers.” And there’s a case study in this book about the Cuban missile crisis. Talk about a dangerous situation!

1962. It became pretty clear to John F. Kennedy — he was the president at the time — and his advisors that Russia (the Soviet Union) was supplying Cuba with missiles and they were apparently building up missiles right close to the United States and we were afraid of being attacked. It was a crisis and those who were old enough to remember (I’m not, I didn’t live through it firsthand), but those who were old enough to remember, remember that it was a very scary moment.

Kennedy — now I’m going to tell you the super simple version of this story — but President Kennedy basically brought his advisors together and they decided to put the information that they had into three categories because they were trying to guess and speculate and weigh the odds of what would Khrushchev do in this situation. How should they handle this crisis? And the three categories were: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we think we know. And they wrote down everything they absolutely know: bona fide fact, we have evidence to back this up. What we don’t know: things that they really, you know, we don’t know, whatever. They wrote down the stuff that they didn’t know. And they took the time to write down what “we think we know.” What are our assumptions?

And once they had information in three categories, they were able to make a much better analysis of the situation and make good group decisions about how to handle the situation. As it happens it looks like they made a good decision. They avoided what a lot of people thought was going to turn into a war.

It’s always what we think we know that gets us in trouble. But so often we are very quick to act on what we think we know.

I’m going to show you another picture here. This one magically appeared on my Facebook page one day. You know how these things get sent around. But I happen to like this one and it says, “Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.” It’s by Carl Jung. And I think there’s a lot of truth to this statement.

One reason that we are quick to judge and quick to act on our assumptions is because that’s easy. It is way easier to assume bad things about the guy sitting next to me in the airport then it is to strike up a conversation with him and find out what he’s really like or even ask him, “Why are you taking the cookies off of the table between us?”

It is way easier to think bad thoughts about somebody and to make assumptions about why they are behaving the way that they are then it is to have a conversation with them and ask them why are they doing things the way they are. Judging is easy, thinking, analyzing asking questions is hard. But it’s thinking, analyzing and asking questions that helps us make good group decisions.

I have a friend who used to drink a lot. He doesn’t drink anymore but he tells a lot of stories about back in the day when he used to drink a lot; when he was not his best self. And you can see that I’m looking down at my notes here because I want to get this right. He used to say, “I was frequently wrong, but never in doubt.” And I just think that’s classic. I am guilty of that myself when I’m not my best self. “Frequently wrong, but never in doubt.”

We tend to put up a false front driven by ego, driven by a sense of pride. We are so nervous about being exposed for not knowing something that we would rather put up a front and act as though we are not in doubt about what we are doing. Even though we may be wrong — frequently wrong — and this is a big problem in group decision-making.

The most helpful comment that I can make when I’m in a meeting or in a group of people making decisions, the most helpful comment, it is usually not, “Hey I know what to do.” The most helpful comment is often, “I don’t know.” I don’t know is a posture of humility. It opens ourselves up to new information, to contributions from other people. That is the attitude that gives us our best chance of making good decisions.

For more on this topic Craig has written a Good Group Tip called Assumptions Lead to Trouble.


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