Climbing the Ladder of Inference

An idea that I constantly remind myself about and coach to others is the peril and danger of “climbing the ladder of inference.” Falling into this trap can lead to poor decisions, actions, and relationships that can have disastrous consequences on policy, strategy, plans, and projects resulting in poor performance and wasted time, energy and resources.

Chris Argyris developed the ladder of inference as a tool to understand the thinking process. The ladder of inference is a tool to help us recognise our tendency to make claims about an issue, phenomena, event or the world itself and expect others to also understand and accept without question.

The information at the bottom of the ladder represents all the information — the facts and observations of a situation or phenomena. The rungs of the ladder represent the escalation of claims made based on these facts. The further up the ladder, the more it involves interpretations or inferences about the meaning of the information, inferences that may diverge considerably from both the interpretations of others as well as the “objective” reality. Thus, the further up the ladder one goes, the more possible it is that others can have quite different interpretations of the same original set of facts.

One of the great dangers is that we often do not realize that we’re making these leaps and assumptions as we move from a fact or observation and that we can literally talk ourselves into a set of beliefs and then actions. Our inference becomes our reality.

Here’s a simple example.

  1. The fact or observation: Phil, after a meeting we both attended, as he looks at me, scowls as he shakes his head and rapidly blinks his eyes.
  2. Many other things were also occurring (there was a gust of wind from an outside door that someone else opened; there were construction workers working on an office rebuilt down the hall; there was dust on the floor) but I filter and select only certain data (Phil’s facial expression).
  3. I add my own meaning and interpretation to these selected facts such as in my experience and culture these expressions mean disgust or disagreement.
  4. Without awareness I make a leap, an assumption: Phil is expressing some sort of disgust.
  5. I make a conclusion: Phil is angry with me and disagrees with the point I made in the meeting.
  6. I create a set of beliefs: Phil is against me, he’s out to get me, he hates me.
  7. I take action based on my beliefs: I write an angry email to Phil about how I think he is undermining what I am trying to do; I deliberately exclude Phil from other sessions he should attend.

To add further danger to this model, Argyris also added the concept of the reflexive loop from step 6 (creating beliefs) to step 2 (selecting my facts) such that my system of beliefs (already predicated on selected facts and assumptions) further filters my choice of facts so as to create a self-reinforcing, self-serving loop, a personalized world-view. His coaching and admonition is that we need to add a mental failsafe or clutch that allows us to stand back from this ladder and loop to observe how we are thinking (double-loop learning or thinking about how we are thinking).

The actual situation? Phil left the meeting impressed with my proposal but, as he exited the room, the gust of wind from the open door drove drywall dust and wood splinters from the construction into his eyes unexpectedly and got into his contact lenses, creating a great deal of abrasion to his eyes.

A previous post (Umbrella Man) is another way of thinking about how we can transform a fact into many, often sinister, interpretations. Sometimes climbing the ladder of inference is amusing, but often it creates negative, sometimes tragic, consequences.

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