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Vail Daily column: The assumptions we make about each other

Elizabeth Myers
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado

How we perceive others (and how others perceive us) is a huge factor in how we relate to the world around us. And because these perceptions are often snap judgments, or assumptions, they may or may not have any basis in reality. Wikipedia defines assumptions as “a proposition that is taken for granted, as if it were true based upon presupposition without preponderance of the facts.”

Let’s look at some not-very-wild examples:

Everyone around me is married. They’re happy, I’m not. (Assumption: Marriage equals happiness)



He/she is overweight. (Assumption: He/she has no self-control)

She’s beautiful. (Assumption: She’s happy)



They have money. (Assumption: Their life is good)

I struggle with depression (Assumption: Everyone around me is happy)

And on and on.



We make assumptions in general about men, women, race, age, happiness, health, you name it. Indeed, our first impressions particularly register very quickly, almost instantaneously, before we have been able to gather any data. How do we perceive and categorize others? Let us assume we do not make the wild assumptions above. If we set these aside, social psychologists have determined that there are two critical variables – warmth and competence – which shape our emotions and behaviors towards others.

Warmth is perceived first. This can be described as reading the other’s intentions, positive or negative. It is evidenced by natural smiles, eye contact, appropriate self-disclosure, humor. Competence is perceived next. Is the person capable of carrying out his/her intentions? We value warmth and competence – they attract – and we don’t want to be around people who are cold and/or incompetent. The trap here is that once we make these quick assumptions about someone, we often create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We treat people in ways consistent with our expectations of them, and in doing so, we elicit behavior that confirms these expectations. If you think someone is stupid/cold/a jerk, you will act towards them in a way that elicits those behaviors.

From a psychological standpoint, if connection with others is what we want and need, it would seem that the first thing we need to do is to stop making assumptions about others. The other issue we need to consider is how others perceive us. If we know that warmth and competence are what attract, how well do we project these? And if we do not do this well, why not? If this is something we need to figure out, then we need to do so. We need to start asking the people around us for feedback. We need to examine ourselves honestly and see what needs to change. At the same time, we need to take a look at the assumptions we make about the people around us, both our loved ones and the people we meet.

I know that when I walk around Walmart and consciously work to drop all my assumptions about race, age, sex, wealth, health, etc – and look at each individual as a loved child of God, with equal humanity to my own, with similar struggles to mine, indeed as equal in value to me – I am struck to two things. One, I do make assumptions, all the time. And two, if I consciously drop the assumptions, my sense of apartness and loneliness disappear and I am open to everyone I see. And I wonder, when I do this, do the other Walmart shoppers see and feel the difference in me? I imagine they do (if they drop their own assumptions about me). The world would undoubtedly be a better place if we all could remember to do so!

Elizabeth Myers is the executive director of the Samaritan Counseling Center. She can be reached at 970-926-8558. Visit the Center’s website at http://www.samaritan-vail.org for more information


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