Challenging Unconscious Assumptions

Challenging Unconscious Assumptions
When is a paper clip not a paper clip? When you straighten it out to solve a
problem requiring a piece of wire. When is an engineer not an engineer? When
she is an anthropologist, visiting a customer’s home to understand when, why,
and how a product is being used. We think of tools and people in certain roles
and have trouble reconceiving those roles. The human mind is extremely
susceptible to routine thinking. It is efficient not to question the way we
interact with our surroundings. If we stopped to think about it before we sat
in a chair, if we did not assume that our medications were uncontaminated, if
we did not expect an accountant to give us different information than the
house painter—if we did not make hundreds of unconscious assumptions every
hour, we would be virtually paralyzed. The trouble is, those assumptions can
also keep us from thinking creatively, either individually or as a group. Shared
assumptions are a form of convergent thinking. Yet if we can free just a few
strands of the mental bonds in our minds connecting persons or objects with
their function, we open up new possibilities. Why have you scoured the house
for a screwdriver when a dime would do the trick? Well, because a dime is
supposed to be used to buy a piece of ‘penny’ candy—not as a tool. Sometimes

simply alerting group members to their own susceptibility helps them develop
the ability to question their own assumptions. Asking some basic questions can
lead the discussion in new directions:
• What are our assumptions here? Are they the only valid ones?
• Are there different ways of viewing this situation, for example, from someone
else’s perspective?
The examples in ‘Obstacles to Creative Thinking’ illustrate three factors to
which we are particularly vulnerable:
1. Functional fixedness refers to our inhibition to free ourselves from the expectations
of how something (or someone) normally functions. Boxes are
containers, not platforms, so we are slow to think of emptying a matchbox
to attach to the wall. When we rely on our past experiences of how things
are used, we often get stuck, unable to break out of old-drinking habits.
2. Fixation is similar: our mental wheels are stuck in the mud of approaching a
problem from the ‘obvious’ direction. (When a problem is presented in two
dimensions, we naturally try to solve it in two.)
3. The confirmation bias refers to our tendency to seek support for our
convictions, and reluctance to either look for or accept contrary evidence.
(‘I’m such a good judge of character. Almost all the people I’ve promoted
have worked out fine.’ Yes, but how about all the people you didn’t promote?
Maybe they worked out fine elsewhere within or outside the organization as

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