I was listening yesterday to a former debater describe how difficult it is for young people to understand the importance of providing credible support for what they say in an era when even the most established of sources get away with “some people say,” “some people think,” “they say,” “people have told me,” and other absurdly weak forms of evidence.
My husband and I felt compelled to turn off a radio interview today because the woman responding to questions was making sweeping generalizations and the interviewer just let it pass. “My friends have told me,” “I’ve been told by a lot of people,” and “People are thinking more that way now” were the only types of support she offered for her assertions. And she was supposed to be an expert!
Is it any wonder that we function each day in a maelstrom of half-baked truths where people make assumptions about major issues in their lives without the kinds of support they should seek? We are indeed lazy information processors when we allow ourselves to be influenced in this way. Assumptions, inferences, and judgments are useful when they provide initial impressions that we proceed to check. They can save lives when, for example, we sense that a person driving erratically is likely to suddenly change lanes — and he does. But they are dangerous when we allow them to influence our ways of thinking about important issues and people with whom we live and work.
Assumptions, inferences and judgments are like hypotheses. They need to be tested, especially when a lot depends on doing so.
It’s worth reviewing how many times you relied on assumptions, inferences, and judgments today. I’ll join you. Among those times, when should we have sought further information before drawing conclusions or acting? This is a very important exercise, not only for each of us personally, but as a society. To the extent we allow ourselves to be led by our noses each day based on how things seem rather than endeavoring to learn the way things really are, we contribute to poor decisions. Such errors add up.
With regard to work, people who do their homework rather than shoot from the hip with unsubstantiated opinions are more persuasive. How do I know? You’re wise to ask? My sources for that are a career of studying persuasion, research for the writing of Persuasion in Practice and coaching executives who improved immensely at work by noticing the extent to which they depended on weak information.
Tomorrow we can begin lessening our errors by expecting quality support for assertions — from ourselves and others. This may be a small step, but it’s an important one personally and professionally.