Jumping to conclusions

In this age of information overload, our brains do a fantastic job of protecting us. By filtering and making assumptions. By jumping to conclusions. The thing is, sometimes they’re wrong, because the assumptions were based on past information, and may not apply to the present or the future.

We need to take rein and maintain a questioning mind.

Do you season before you taste?

I people-watch. When I’m having meals, or a cup of tea, I notice people. Their facial reactions, body movements and hand gestures. Their speech patterns. What they’re wearing. Any accessories such as laptops or wooden paddles (students in dragon boat racing).

I noticed something when people eat. Most of them reached for seasoning and condiment, and added them into their food before even tasting it. I’ve seen people sprinkle chilli flakes on their pasta. I’ve seen a child scooping grated cheese and plopping it on his pizza. There were people who dump packets of sugar into their coffee or tea. My friend, the classic case, squeezed four packets of chilli sauce on his burger (and mayonnaise and tomato sauce if he could get away with it).

All of them added seasoning before taking a bite, a sip, a taste of the food.

After watching this phenomena and thinking it over, I realised it. All these people had already decided that whatever food that’s in front of them needed more seasoning, whether the food was great or not. Their ingrain habits of pre-seasoning had blinded them to the case where the food was great in the first place.

The missing cursor

There’s this suite of Windows programs written in PowerBuilder that were passed down to me. There’s this quirk where the textboxes were too short in height. Because of this, even when the textbox was in focus, such as using the mouse to click on it, the familiar blinking cursor was still missing.

I had users who told me they could not edit the data in a textbox. I clicked on that textbox and hit the backspace button, the delete button and a random sequence of keys such as “asdf”. The textbox worked fine. The only thing missing was the blinking cursor and highlighted text to indicate the textbox was in focus.

There’s this particular case where I asked the user if she tried actually editing the data, like pressing the delete button. She said no. She had already assumed that because the blinking cursor was missing, that not only was the textbox not in focus, that it was also not editable. She didn’t even try editing in the first place.

Debugging errors

Jumping to conclusions based on weak assumptions is dangerous when debugging program errors. Faced with an error, you already made the assumption that most of the program was working fine, that hopefully only a small part of the code was wrong. Then you slowly trace back to hopefully one line of code, fix that and be on your merry way.

Debugging is like mathematical proofs. Proofs start with assumptions. Once you’re convinced the assumptions are correct, you move on to getting further assumptions based on the original ones. You deduce results, come up with findings and finally a conclusion.

What if your original assumptions were wrong? Then the proof becomes useless other than an exercise in logical reasoning.

Closing

Just to make it clear, I am for jumping to conclusions. Within reason of course. With experience, one can quickly come up with plausible causes for bugs, and act on correcting them. Sometimes I get an intuitive sense of trying out a solution over a few others. What you need to be aware of, is that you choose to be open to possibilities before closing in on your conclusions.

I understand that in French cuisine, it’s considered an insult to the chef if you add, say, tomato sauce to his dish. It doesn’t matter what you added. Just the act of adding something is an insult. It implies his food is not up to your standards, that it’s so tasteless that you need to enhance the food by adding something. Taste the food first. Don’t insult the chef by jumping to conclusions.

Pop quiz: See if you can figure this out. I found it in my math textbook in university.

Suppose there’s a barber who shaves only those who do not shave themselves. The question is, does the barber shave himself?

Answer to pop quiz here.