Is It Time To Question Your Assumptions?

No matter what people might say about assumption being the mother of all bad things, we all base what we do on the things that we believe to be true.

If we had to question every decision we made on a daily basis nothing would ever get done.

The trick is to make sure that the truths on which we’re building are the right ones. And when it comes to understanding and predicting human behaviour it’s amazing how often the real truth is very different to what we might expect.

Any story based on false assumptions will fail to connect, because it will be meaningless and irrelevant. People simply won’t believe it because it won’t ring true with how they feel and what they think.

Assumption One – We all want as much choice as possible.

Choice is one of those things that we’re told again and again is A Good Thing. An awful lot of money is invested by businesses in offering more and more choice. Just look at the plethora of mobile phone contract options.

However, research into human behaviour, as opposed to human attitudes (i.e. what we actually do, rather than what we say we want), shows this is not the case.

In a well-established experiment two stalls are set up. One has lots of different varieties of jam and the other only has a few flavours.  What happens? People spend a lot more time at the stall with lots of different jams. And they spend a lot more money at the stall with only a few flavours.

When the same principle was applied to websites the evidence showed that people spent more money on the web pages that had fewer products listed.

The truth is we may like the idea of choice, but we don’t like the reality.

Assumption Two – We put our own immediate interests first every time.

We’d probably expect people, given the option to go for whatever’s going to benefit them personally and this certainly plays out in plenty of scenarios.

But consider a game called Ultimatum, developed in the 1980s to examine the way we bargain. It’s played in pairs. One person is ‘given’ £100 and told to make an offer to split the money with the other player. They can choose any split they like. The only catch is that if the second person refuses to accept the offer no-one gets any money.

What’s interesting is that every time the game has been played and observed, offers below a certain level are consistently refused. Yet this makes no economic sense. If you make me an offer of £1 and propose to keep the other £99 for yourself, I still stand to be £1 better off than I was before. So why would I turn it down and refuse ‘free money’?

Fairness, however, is about more than money. It’s a principle on which so much of our social interaction is based. That’s why sometimes we refuse to accept a bargain that offers us gain but also triggers our sense of injustice.

Assumption Three – We make rational decisions based on the evidence in front of us.

We don’t. In fact, the way an option is presented, its framing, can make more of a difference than the option itself.

In another well-known experiment two people need the same major operation. It’s not lifesaving, but it’s going to make a huge difference to their quality of life. The same surgeon speaks to both patients. She tells the first patient they have an 80% chance of surviving the surgery. She tells the second patient they have a 20% risk of dying.

Same conditions, same procedure, same risk, but presented from opposing perspectives. Does it make a difference? Definitely. Those who are presented with the 80% chance of surviving are way, way more likely to agree.

Humans are loss averse. The greater we perceive something framed in terms of what we have to lose, the less attractive that offer becomes.

Three simple examples that show while human behaviour can be understood and to some extent shaped and predicted, it can also require a radical rethink of the assumptions we may currently be making.