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Shattered Assumptions in psychology refers to the basic assumptions we have about life that fail to explain a traumatic event. The traumatic event creates a massive shattering of these foundational assumptions about the world, creating dissonance between belief (assumption) and experience, requiring an overhauling cognitive adaption. These life altering events shake our foundations.

​Ronnie Janoff-Bulman coined the term Shattered Assumptions in her 1992 book of the same name. We live in an assumptive world. “A strongly held set of assumptions about the world and the self which is confidently maintained and used as a means of recognizing, planning and acting … Assumptions such as these are learned and confirmed by the experience of many years” (Janoff-Bulman, 2002).

Shattered assumptions occur with unplanned traumatic life events. However, other life events, typical life transitional steps, may not require the same cognitive reappraisals.

Basic Assumptions and Life Altering Events

Other psychologists refer to the basic assumptions as our working model of the world. While our assumptive world can be quite complex, we have some very basic assumptions such as:

  • the world is safe,
  • kind,
  • or generous.

    Others may hold much darker basic assumptions such as: the world is dangerous, mean or stingy.

    From our basic assumptions we interpret experience. Assimilating events into our working narrative. The shattering occurs when an event (or series of events) conflicts with our assumptive world. For example, a violent crime may shatter our assumption of the world being safe and kind. The event stuns our basic assumptions about the world. We must stop, reevaluate, and construct new assumptions that accommodate our woeful experience.

    When life shaking events occur, destroying basic assumptions, we must adapt, altering beliefs to accommodate the new experience.

    The shattered assumption theory is a primary part of post traumatic growth research.


    Janoff-Bulman, R, (2002). Shattered Assumptions (Towards a New Psychology of Trauma).  Free Press; Completely Updated ed. edition.

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