The Power of Presupposition

Lynne Soraya

Presuppositions. We all know what they are — but what part do they play in our interactions?

Any member of a minority group will tell you stories in which they felt that they have been unfairly stereotyped – in which the other person made a presupposition about their character dependent on certain criteria – be it age, gender, race, or some other factor.

These are obvious cases of presuppositions impacting our social interaction. But are there situations in which presuppositions more subtly impact interactions?

If you reach out to touch someone, and they jerk away, do you make a presupposition as to what that means?

If someone is habitually quiet, do you make presuppositions regarding their intelligence or competence?

As I have learned about autism and Asperger’s Syndrome, I have learned to question certain aspects of my experience. Things that I accepted as “normal,” because I experienced them routinely, I began to realize were really uncommon.

The phantom taste of lemon in my mouth, when seeing a certain color of yellow. Sound effects that seem indelibly associated in my mind with certain people, faces or features. The fascination of the sparkles glinting off a metallic sticker in the midsummer sun. The pain which shoots through my body if I am startled.

What I have realized in comparing notes with other people on and off the autism spectrum is this: there are an unlimited variety of ways in which people experience the world. Even in a world that puts a high value and price on the “normal” – there really is no such thing.

This variety means that no person has an identical perception to another. We celebrate this concept in an emotional and experiential sense – that no person has the exact same experiences or emotions – but I feel that this also extends far beyond this.

Reading the works of such neurologists as Oliver Sacks and V. Ramachandran – it becomes clear that the variation in the human experience is very affected by how our brains interpret the world around us, and this varies widely.

Being the concrete beings we are, I believe many people miss this. In a “what you see is what you get” world – where is the room to realize that what your brain “sees” when looking at an object, person, or situation, may be completely different than what my brain “sees”? And what presuppositions will that assumption cause you to make?

I think this a common root of some of the social issues experienced by people on the autism spectrum, or others who have similar, invisible disabilities. People seem to make the default presupposition that your experience is similar to theirs, unless you tell them otherwise.

For example, my brain is not particularly efficient in decoding sounds and speech. The net result is that sometimes there’s a noticeable delay between my hearing a sound, and my brain decoding it. I’ll hear some muffled, unrecognizable sound, say “What?”, then a second later my brain will decode it as speech. What does this lead to when the other person makes the assumption that my hearing/neurology is “normal”? The presupposition that I really heard them in the first place then lied about it, which is not true at all.

Many articles about autism written from the outside perspective fall prey to this type of thinking as well. A “normal” person who looks at typical autistic behavior – avoiding eye contact, not talking, and avoiding personal contact – tends to make the assumption that this behavior means the same thing that it would mean in a person who does not have autism. This leads to blanket statements such as “People with autism have no desire for human contact.”

The question is – do you know this, or is it a presupposition? Especially if the person in non-verbal – can you make that presupposition? Or could it be that the person wants interaction, but finds it painful or difficult to do so?

This goes both ways – until I began questioning the aspects of my experience that are variant, I assumed that they were “normal.” It was a revelation to realize that not everyone thinks in pictures, or feel pain when startled – and it meant that I had to change some of my presuppositions.

I used to think that people who intentionally startled others were being cruel, perhaps even sadistic. How else can you describe someone who intentionally causes someone else pain for their own amusement? The realization that not everybody experiences pain in this situation made me shift my paradigm and change my presupposition.

So, how are your presuppositions influencing how you interact with and perceive others? Are there any people you may be pre-judging based on presuppositions that may be faulty?


Vilayanur S. Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization (2010 TED talk)

Vilayanur S Ramachandran: A journey to the center of your mind (2007 TED talk)

Oliver Sacks An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales