Have you ever been surprised at someone’s reaction to something that you said or did, or perhaps at something that someone else said or did?
This can be due to a mental process called the ‘Ladder of Inference’.
This was first noted by Chris Argyris, in the 1970s, and is a theory of how we can start with a fact (a bit of data), and use our own specific thinking to come to a certain conclusion (sometimes wrong!)
This can happen because we all interpret a piece of data according to our experiences in life. We start with the data, but then view it according to our past experiences, and then draw conclusions or inferences from it. These are not tested, as we rarely make this process visible to anyone else, so it cannot be corrected if it is wrong.
This happens so quickly that we are often not aware that we are doing it, and all that others see is what we do (our actions) because of how we interpret the data / facts.
(Diagram from: https://www.toolshero.com/decision-making/ladder-of-inference/)
We can think that:-
- Our beliefs are the truth.
- The truth is obvious.
- Our beliefs are based on real data.
- The data we select is the real data.
However: beliefs and assumptions can affect everything in the list above – they can affect which data we choose, how we analyse it, and the conclusions that we draw from it. Beliefs can have been learnt at anytime since childhood, and we may not even be aware of where they were learnt.
The above process is also self-perpetuating, as we may only notice data that agrees with what we have decided. So the whole process can form a giant ‘loop’! We may not even be aware of the steps in the process, as it all seems so reasonable and self-evident to us.
Here’s a simple example of the ladder in action:
- Alice arranges to meet Betty for dinner at 7.00pm.
- Alice is late and doesn’t offer any explanation – in fact she totally ignores the fact that she is late.
- Betty decides that Alice does not value Betty’s time, and doesn’t value Betty, as she is prepared to keep her waiting without explanation.
- Betty concludes that Alice obviously doesn’t want Betty’s friendship.
- When Alice suggests meeting the following week, Betty says that she is busy (as an excuse).
- However, all Alice sees is that Betty does not want to meet up again. She may have no idea why. Of course, Alice should have explained why she was late, but she may not have realised that she was late – her watch could be slow or she may have been too busy to look at it. Meanwhile, Betty has decided that Alice is not interested in her friendship.
There will be a corresponding process happening in Alice’s mind. She will only see the resulting behaviour – Betty’s cool and perhaps slightly unfriendly attitude towards her, and may not know why. This would happen especially if Alice did not realise that she was late in meeting Betty.
In addition, our beliefs and experience will lead us to believe that the same occurrence is happening again if we encounter the same situation again, perhaps with even fewer facts next time.
In my next blog post I will provide some methods of avoiding this confusion!
- The Ladder of Inference. https://www.skillsyouneed.com/ips/ladder-of-inference.html
- Ross, R. (1994). The Ladder of Inference. www.ucd.ie/t4cms/The%20Ladder%20of%20Inference.pdf
- Mulder, P. (2018). Ladder of Inference. https://www.toolshero.com/decision-making/ladder-of-inference/