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Tasty-looking berries and change of opinion: how assumptions (don’t) rule our life

Are assumptions always wrong or are we wrong in giving assumptions too much power? We can think about countless episodes in which our assumptions came in handy, but also the other way round. In this piece, Vera reflects on the meaning of assumptions and how we can get rid of the unfounded ones.

A berry (?) good new year to all of you! How are your new years’ resolutions faring? For me, I’m trying to work on the way I assume things. And perhaps, you could join me in this for this article or longer. When I say I want to work on my assumptions, I am not saying that assumptions are necessarily harmful. Take having new years’ resolutions: we are bombarded with resolutions on social media and in our social circles. Therefore, it is not unlikely that you might have a resolution or think about one. I assume it’s a reasonably neutral topic to discuss. However, there are tonnes of assumptions that might be considered annoying, rude or harmful. You probably have experienced this yourself concerning your gender. In this article, I would like to zoom in on assumptions, their role, and our agency in this matter: because let’s be frank, there are some assumptions that we would all like to evade, and that is what I am working on.

So what are assumptions? To start off easily, let’s look at the dictionary definition. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, we can define an assumption as “something that you accept as true without question or proof.” This definition may raise questions in a (positivist) science-loving society like ours: do we not need proof? Do we not need to ask questions? And I mean, fair, but we don’t necessarily always have the time to do so. And sometimes, I do not need to test something. Think of the following situation: you are walking through the most beautiful Dutch city called Leiden. And all of a sudden, you see some beautiful, red, appealing berries. And guess what, you are hungry. Wouldn’t it be tempting to eat some? But you don’t recognize these berries. You haven’t seen them in the supermarket. Even though your body is telling you to eat something, you would probably choose not to eat those berries. Why? Because you probably assume they are not edible. And that seems like a proper response: you have no quick way of testing the possible toxicity of these berries, and you need to be careful about what you put in your body. Making assumptions can thus be helpful and necessary.

But let’s zoom in on the berry situation, and more specifically on the fact that we are unfamiliar with the type of berry. A well-known saying, ‘What you don’t know, you fear’ is probably appropriate to write down here. As a self-protecting mechanism, we are reluctant and wary of unknown things. It is an automatic response. We cannot erase those reactions in ourselves. Still, we can change them bit by bit and control how we act towards others in similar future situations. We certainly have agency in that. I have had my share of cringe-worthy responses to unfamiliar situations. Personally, I lived in a somewhat isolated community as a child. Hence, as an adult, once I moved to Leiden, I encountered people from communities that I had never seen in person before. And sometimes, I had gut hate reactions to women who weren’t traditionally feminine ‘enough’. I assumed they were terrible people not taking care of themselves, solely judging them on their appearance.

I now know that my assumptions were based on utter nonsense. But to change my response to those unfamiliar people, I first had to identify that I was making assumptions and then had to reflect on those assumptions. Why do I respond to certain stimuli in those ways? Does it make sense? How valid is my belief? Is my chain of judgement appropriate? What does my response do to others? How would I feel if someone responded to me in that way? Billions of questions I could not answer in an instant. I had to investigate, and for that, I used my computer as a start.

But most importantly, I had to communicate. By reaching out to others and being humble, I create opportunities to learn: I might get to know what is going on! However, no one is required to answer me, so patience is golden in things like this. I do not need myself to be perfect tomorrow; I just need to know that I am trying and improving for the better. Learning things left and right. And I hope you do this for yourself as well. Assuming and then judging things may easily lead to unfortunate mistakes. Listening and changing is tricky: I still smack my head into a pillow every now and then because of some regrettable actions. I wouldn’t advise you to treat your pillow in the same way, but yes, making mistakes is part of the progress.

We are not damned to obey our assumptions, and assumptions are not wrong in themselves. It is about what you do and what power you give to the assumptions you make. Identifying and reflecting on assumptions is crucial if you want to develop yourself. We shouldn’t pressure ourselves to be perfect though, it is all about communicating with others, learning, and improving. Don’t worry about being wrong; failure is also progress.

For now, I wish you a berry good month. And, fun fact, an excellent red looking ‘berry’ I saw during a relaxing walk in Leiden apparently wasn’t toxic. I had no idea before, but a friend told me it was a rosehip. Guess I learnt something!


By Vera de Zwaan


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