by Rick Brenner
We necessarily make assumptions about our lives, including our work, because assumptions simplify things. And usually, our assumptions are valid. But not always.
Two components of the U.S. Consumer Price Index for 1994-2010: Medical Care (in blue), and Food (in red). Even if you do pay attention to the consumer price index relative to your own compensation package, it can give you a distorted view of its impact on you personally, because your own spending patterns might not match the average of all components. For example, if you have a new and growing family, food might be more important than medical care, unless you have health problems in your young family, or an elderly and ill parent. When evaluating your compensation, you must take the effects of inflation into account. Data from the U.S Census Bureau.
A constancy assumption implies that what has been true in the past will be true in the future, or that what is true here, in this situation, is also true there, in the same situation. We tend to regard constancy assumptions as more factual when they've been valid for longer periods, or when they've been validated in more places. That is, the more examples we have of their validity, the more likely we are to regard them as facts, rather than assumptions.
And that's when we're at risk of making big mistakes. Constancy assumptions are usually subject to defects related to context. For example, when we apply the brakes on a bicycle, our experience is that the bicycle will slow and eventually stop. At least, this has happened so many times that we expect it will always happen. But on icy roads, or rainy days, or when the bicycle has just gone through a puddle, the brakes might not be so effective. Our constancy assumption might be violated.
Some constancy assumptions are more likely to be invalidated as the number of examples of validity increases. For example, when people are required to accept yet another year of inadequate pay raises, their tolerance is tested each year, but they generally accept paltry increases. Eventually, though, the level of pay falls far enough below their needs, or below what other employers offer, and their acquiescence ends. Those employees who are the most attractive to other employers then find employment elsewhere.
Here are some examples of constancy assumptions that are sometimes inappropriately regarded as facts.
- Productivity rates
- Estimating the person hours required to execute projects is a delicate art. We try to convert art into science by collecting and using experience data, but that data can be misleading. For example, when our workforce ages even by a few years, the demands of home life can change, and those changes affect productivity.
- Personal trustworthiness
- When personal circumstances change, people make different choices and change their alliances, We tend to regard constancy assumptions
as more factual when their pasts
are longer, or when they've been
validated in more placesnot because their values change, but because their goals and tactics do. Somebody you distrusted last year might be trustworthy this year, and vice versa.
- Supervisory relationships
- Cultivating a strong relationship with your supervisor is almost always worthwhile, but reorganization or a change of supervisor can nearly erase that investment overnight.
- The value of annual compensation
- In most national economies, inflation is slow but steady, and it erodes everyone's compensation. Other sources of compensation erosion are pay cuts, layoffs, and benefits reductions. Assuming that compensation is constant or increasing is probably risky. Save.
Perhaps the most widespread constancy assumption concerns the possibility or necessity of finding a new job. People tend to assume that their current positions will endure. They stay in their jobs, often unhappy and underpaid, rather than exploring opportunities elsewhere, until too late. Are you among their number? Top Next Issue
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More articles on Critical Thinking at Work:
- Finger Puzzles and "Common Sense"
- Working on complex projects, we often face a choice between "just do it" and "wait, let's think this through first." Choosing to just do it can seem to be the shortest path to the goal, but it rarely is. It's an example of a Finger Puzzle.
- Coincidences Do Happen
- When we notice similarities between events, or possible patterns of events, we often attribute meaning to them beyond what we can prove. Sometimes we guess right, and sometimes not. How can we improve our guesses?
- Begging the Question
- Begging the question is a common, usually undetected, rhetorical fallacy. It leads to unsupported conclusions and painful places we just can't live with. What can we do when it happens?
- Wacky Words of Wisdom: Part II
- Words of wisdom are so often helpful that many of them have solidified into easily remembered capsules. And that's where the trouble begins. We remember them too easily and we apply them too liberally. Here's Part II of a collection of often-misapplied words of wisdom.
- Anecdotes and Refutations
- In debate and argumentation, anecdotes are useful. They illustrate. They make things concrete. But they aren't proof of anything. Using anecdotes as proofs leads to much trouble and wasted time.
See also Critical Thinking at Work and Personal, Team, and Organizational Effectiveness for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 11: Characterization Risk
- To characterize is to offer a description of a person, event, or concept. Characterizations are usually judgmental, and usually serve one side of a debate. And they often make trouble. Available here and by RSS on May 11.
- And on May 18: Ego Depletion and Priority Setting
- Setting priorities for tasks is tricky when we find the tasks unappealing, because we have limited energy for self-control. Here are some strategies for limiting these effects on priority setting. Available here and by RSS on May 18.
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