Climbing Down the Ladder of Inference

Through the course of evolution, human beings have acquired the ability to recognize patterns and make inferences as shortcuts to sensing danger, finding food, and interacting with one another.  Taking in information is not just about observing facts and data; our brains instinctively process these inputs into insights that matter to us and help us draw conclusions about the world.

It’s essential for survival and thriving.

Unfortunately, this same gift can cause a lot of misunderstandings and tensions among people, because one person’s insights and conclusions may not match another person’s insights and conclusions.  For example, I might interpret a colleague’s constant rescheduling of our 1:1s as meaning that he doesn’t think my contributions are valuable.  Therefore, I may conclude that I don’t want to work with him anymore.  His interpretation may actually be the opposite — that my contributions are very valuable — which is why, despite his insanely packed schedule of work and personal obligations, he’s still trying to find time to meet.

In this case, it would be a tragedy if I were start avoiding this person!

A tool called the Ladder of Inference (conceived by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris in 1990) is helpful in getting us to check the facts and how we arrive at our conclusions.  It (below) outlines the automatic steps that our brains go through, from taking in data; selecting the bits that help formulate a coherent picture; interpreting this picture; deriving assumptions from this; leading to conclusions; which strengthen beliefs; and lead to actions.

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In this example, you can see that my thought process leads to the action of avoidance.  Yet, if I were able to climb down the Ladder of Inference, I would see that I am applying a selective filter in what pieces of data I use to knit together my interpreted reality.  I’m also making a leap in assuming that this colleague wouldn’t reschedule important meetings.  

Seeing this all written out, it’s clear that my conclusion is unsubstantiated, and that I should check my assumptions and interpretations before taking any drastic action.  Similarly, when there is a misunderstanding at work, it’s helpful to mentally go through the Ladder of Inference steps to check your thinking.  Having an objective third-party like a coach or peer can ensure you are being honest and complete in your thinking, too.

If you are someone who coaches or advises others, you can use the Ladder to help people who are stuck in a particular frame of reference.  (See below for a bunch of common frames.)  Getting people to question their conclusions, assumptions, and how they arrived at them is a tool that can be applied from problem-solving sessions to coaching — at work and at home.

A dozen common negative frames that the Ladder can help break out of  

  1. Pessimistic Filter: Only see the negatives and fail to recognize and acknowledge the positives
  2. Jumping to Conclusions:  Conclusions and assumptions are not based on fact or evidence, but on feelings and personal opinions — e.g., “mindreading”, predictive thinking
  3. Personalization:  Tendency to blame oneself for one’s problems and for everything that goes wrong in one’s life
  4. Black and White Thinking:  Tendency to only see the extremes of a situation
  5. Catastrophising:  Blow things out of proportion and make them out to be a lot worse than they are
  6. Overgeneralization:  Reference one’s past in order to make assumptions about the present.  Uses words like “He always,” “She never”, “Everyone knows”.
  7. Shoulding and Musting:  Put unreasonable demands and pressure on oneself and on other people to do certain things
  8. Labeling:  Labeling oneself or other people in certain ways based on behavior in very specific situations.
  9. Magnification and Minimization:  Magnify the positives attributes of another person, while at the same time minimizing own positive attributes
  10. Emotional Reasoning:  View a particular situation in accordance with how one’s feeling
  11. Victim mindset:  View situations as a burden that has been put upon him/her, feels helpless to change
  12. Martyrdom:  See one’s role as having to bear the brunt of hardship for the sake of others


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