I wrote a few months ago about what it means to be selfish. I shared my belief that we are all a little selfish because we naturally view things from our own perspectives; adopting the perspectives of others requires conscious and intentional effort. It turns out that there is a name for this pehnomenon: it's called self anchoring. Self anchoring refers to using your own beliefs and personal characteristics as a reference point for determining how other people think and feel. When we try to estimate what another person thinks or feels about a given issue we begin by deciding if his or her point of view is similar to or different from our own. If we have some sort of connection with the person we tend to assume that his or her beliefs are similar to ours.
Everyone uses self anchoring to some degree. In our efforts to understand others we start with what we know - ourselves. We determine how others see the world by using ourselves as a starting point and making incremental adjustments.
The problem is that we tend to underestimate the degree to which others' perspectives differ from our own. Thus, we often make the mistake of assuming that people who are "like us" hold the same opinions, beliefs, feelings, and values that we do. In other words, most of us are not very good at putting ourselves in someone else's shoes; we also tend to be clueless as to how bad we really are.
Unfortunately, the more power a person has the more likely he is to use self anchoring when making decision that affect a large group of people. Thus you see heads of corporations, organizations, and other large entities enacting policies they claim are good for their members or employees but that actually create hardship for the rank and file. "If they really want to make our lives easier why don't they ask us what we need?" we complain. (And indeed, this would seem to make more sense). The truth is this: they don't ask because they think they already know.
I see examples of self anchoring on a much smaller scale, with my patients. Sometimes patients assume that because we have a connection I share their beliefs and opinions. I have, on many occasions, had to listen to impassioned political rants endorsing views that differ significantly from my own. These rants are usually followed by an implied invitation for me to validate what has just been said. It is probably easy for patients to assume I share their beliefs because I so often validate the thoughts and feelings they express, even if I later propose alternative ways of seeing things. They expect me to affirm and validate because that's what I usually do.
I believe the best way to avoid making inaccurate assumptions is to try to avoid making assumptions at all, whenever possible. In reality, there is only one way to know what another person thinks or feels: ask him.