Let’s face it, we all make assumptions. We observe something and we select key pieces of that observation, turn it into “data”, and make our own reality. The problem with this is that we often tend to jump to conclusions that aren’t necessarily correct. The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually on a subconscious level, to go from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder.
Starting at the ground level of the ladder, we have reality and facts. From there, we:
- Select data from what is observed – Here is where the filtering begins. We create assumptions about which parts of the event we have observed are important. This assumption about importance is based on how the things that have been observed affect you or me, or fit into our cultural experience. A person from one culture may not understand the significance of events that occur within another culture. Culture can be large (a country, religious group, political party, or shared language), or small (individual, family, or workgroup).
- Add meaning to what we have selected – At this point, we infer meaning using the norms of our respective cultures, or experiences.
- Make assumptions based on the meaning we’ve added – This process begins to fill in gaps in knowledge. Where we don’t know something about the event, I naturally assume that the motivations, behaviors, wants, desires, likes and dislikes should match my own. These assumptions take the guesswork out of understanding the situation.
- Draw conclusions which prompt feelings – Now that the situation is understood, and the gaps have been filled with assumptions, we can draw conclusions about why a person is behaving a certain way, or why something is happening.
- Adopt beliefs about the world – Based on the conclusions we made earlier, we can now see that there are things within the world that are both in and out of alignment. We start experiencing either negative or positive feelings about the situation. And, because of this, believe some form of action is necessary.
- Take action based on beliefs and feelings – Now that the entire situation is fully understood we take the necessary action. This is often an emotional, rather than a rational response.
Because our beliefs have a big effect on how we form our reality this generates a vicious cycle, and can cause us to ignore the true facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process. Take a look at the diagram for a visual representation of what I’m talking about. As you can see, the first time we experience something (maybe it was yesterday, maybe it was 15 years ago, it doesn’t really matter) we work our way UP the latter, all the way to the top – taking actions based on your beliefs – those actions tend to further solidify and prove that our belief was correct. So from that point forward our new belief becomes our reality and affects what data we select next time, creating what is called a reflexive loop.
However, we can use the Ladder of Inference, to get back to the facts and use our beliefs and experiences to positively expand our field of judgment. Following this step-by-step reasoning can lead us to better results, based on reality, and avoid unnecessary mistakes and conflict.
The Ladder of Inference helps us draw better conclusions, or challenge other people’s conclusions based on true facts and reality. It can be used to help analyze hard data, like a set of sales figures, or to test assertions, such as “the project will go live in April”.
The step-by-step reasoning process helps you remain objective and, when working with others, reach a shared conclusion without conflict.
Try using these two tips to challenge your thinking using the Ladder of Inference:
- Consider your reasoning and identify which rung of the ladder you are on. Are you:
- Selecting your data or reality?
- Interpreting what it means?
- Making or testing assumptions?
- Forming or testing conclusions?
- Deciding what to do and why?
- Once you know which rung you are on, examine how your reasoning got you there by working back down the ladder. This will help you trace your steps in order to discover the facts and reality you are actually working with. The following questions will help you work your way back down the latter (starting from the top)
- Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
- What belief led to that action? Was it logical?
- Why did I draw that conclusion?
- What am I assuming and why? Are my assumptions valid?
- What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data accurately?
- What are the real facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I may have missed on my way up the ladder?
When working through your reasoning, look out for rungs that you tend to jump. Are you inclined to make assumptions too easily? Are you more likely to select only part of the data? Note your tendencies so that you can learn to do that stage or reasoning with extra care next time.