Eli Christman via Flickr

The hidden ‘psychic’ abilities in all of us.

Spoiler: we don’t psychically know anything and need to make fewer assumptions.

I’d been selected for jury duty. When you have green-dyed hair, the thought crosses your mind that barristers could have a few reactions to you as a juror: e.g. “acceptable”, “left-wing, will sympathise with client”, “wtf m8” and so on.

When my juror number was called, no attorneys booted me via a Peremptory challenge, so I sat back down and the trial began. When the time came to deliberate, the judge said:

You cannot make an inference unless it is the only logical inference you can make.

He walked us through an example. You ring your friend and you don’t get an answer. You might assume they missed your call, but this isn’t the only plausible explanation. Perhaps you rang the wrong number, or your friend was trying to answer but their phone wasn’t working. Maybe your friend ignored your call.

It was a very important piece of advice considering the context of the trial — people need to take time to scrutinise and challenge their immediate inferences. It’s scary that even at a trial where people’s lives were in the hands of our judgements, this kind of reminder was absolutely necessary and useful, not patronising.

What are your initial reactions to the following scenarios?

  • You see someone at work looking at Facebook at their desk.
  • One of your friends has worn the same clothes two days in a row.
  • Someone started and never finished their university degree.

Your initial assumption / judgement isn’t the only possible inference you could make about the person. It’s funny how we make these assumptions with so little information.

Extend this to another scenario: you walk past someone on the street who is asking for money. Common things I’ve heard people say in passing include that the person is:

  • Homeless
  • Probably addicted to alcohol or illegal drugs and any money given to them will be spent on such items
  • Is unemployed (and needs to get a job)

Not the nicest reactions. What if none of the above were true? Perhaps the person has never touched drugs or aren’t even homeless? In this scenario, perhaps the most dangerous assumption is that the person had control over their situation and is responsible for how they got there.

I recently went to an Indian restaurant on Brick Lane. My curry was warm in the middle but ice cold everywhere else. The prawns tasted suspicious. But the meal wasn’t the biggest issue of the night.

Handing over the cash for the bill, one of the people at our table told the waiter that we’d paid £150. The waiter came back and told us there was only £140. This still covered the bill, he just wanted to let us know it differed from what we thought.

A couple of the people at the table (who I hadn’t met before) accused the waiter of pocketing the missing money. The poor guy was standing there the whole time as this went on. Neither of them stopped to question whether the first guy who counted it had made a mistake.

Finally someone interjected and said that if we’d all put in the amount we’d said we did, it actually totalled to £140. Looks like someone had made a boo boo with their maths. The initial accusations were based on pure assumption! These guys didn’t even apologise for their accusations but that’s another matter.

This is the thing about assumptions like this — they are dangerous.

I’m all for intuition. I have an intuitive personality and yeah, I’ve read ‘Blink’ (and liked it). All I’m saying is we need to leave aside the negative assumptions about people.

Education, empathy and curiosity can help us understand people better. We need to question our immediate reactions and take time to ask questions before making conclusions. The answers to these questions can be surprising and complex.

We’re not psychic, otherwise I’d have definitely started my own crummy daytime TV show by now.

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