Thoughts About Perspective, Part 2: The Ladder of Inference

According to the Ladder of Inference we’re constantly making snap judgments in our everyday lives. What does this mean for our relationships?

By Heather Adams, Director of Marketing, Arbinger Institute | July 25, 2019

This blog is the second in a two-part series about perspectives. A few months ago, I wrote about cartography and the influence certain maps have had on society. Today I’d like to share a model I learned a few years ago: the Ladder of Inference. I love it because it reminds me to ask, “What else might be true?”

The Ladder of Inference describes human decision-making. It was developed by Chris Argyris, a leading business thinker known as a co-founder of the field of organizational development. It became well-known when it was published in Peter Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline.

It looks like this:

What the Ladder of Inference Says

Think of all the millions upon millions of data points that exist in our environment at any given time. This is the pool of “observable” data—information that’s available for us to absorb and interpret. From this pool, our senses select the data that’s actually brought into our bodies and routed to our brains for interpretation.

Interpretation is what human brains do best. We assign meaning to the information, make assumptions based on the meaning we assign, draw conclusions from those assumptions, adopt beliefs based on our conclusions, and take actions based on our beliefs.

Interestingly, there is a feedback loop between our beliefs and the data we select for interpretation. We tend to select data that reinforces our existing beliefs.

All of this happens almost automatically, and sometimes very quickly. It’s an immensely helpful process in daily life. It lets us quickly make sense of our lives—of the situations we find ourselves in—and respond in (usually) appropriate ways.

But sometimes the automatic nature of this process is our downfall.

Rushing Up the Ladder

I needed to hire a new team member. We extended an offer to someone—let’s call him John—and he accepted. I emailed him to set a start date but received no reply. I waited a few days, emailed him again, and followed up with a phone call. No response. About a week later, I received a short email from him saying he could start in two weeks. I replied, agreed to this start date, and asked him to send some paperwork to HR. No reply. I rescinded his offer letter.

What might the Ladder of Inference say about this experience?

  • I observed that John did not reply quickly to my emails.
  • I assigned meaning: Replying slowly is bad.
  • I made some assumptions: John received my emails and read them immediately. He has nothing more important going on.
  • I drew conclusions: John must not want this job very badly. John is a poor communicator.
  • I adopted/reinforced existing beliefs: Communication is one of the most important things ever! Slow replies are evidence that someone doesn’t care about communication.
  • I took action: I rescinded the offer letter.

It wasn’t until after this exchange occurred that I found out John had been in and out of the hospital for the past few weeks with a terminally ill child.

John was an exceptionally good candidate for the job. I’d given up the chance to hire a fantastic employee because I’d judged his communication before considering that the way I’d interpreted the situation might be flawed.

Thoughts About Perspective

I love the Ladder of Inference because it so clearly depicts that one of the major strengths of the human brain—its ability to distill massive amounts of information, to interpret the world quickly, and to allow us to take action—is also a weakness.

The strengths are obvious, I think. We wouldn’t be able to get dressed in the morning and decide what to eat for breakfast—let alone make it through the rest of the day—if we didn’t have these short-cut ways of making sense of the world. If I had to discover anew each day what clothes are appropriate for the office or what I like to eat, all my brainpower would be spent before I left my house!

But this is the weakness of the system, too. My example about John is one of many times where I attributed false meaning, made incorrect assumptions, drew wrong conclusions, and took mistaken action.

This happens all the time. In my previous company, we would teach this model using an example of a woman in a privileged neighborhood who called the police on a black man who was walking around the outside of the house for sale across the street. She couldn’t imagine the truth: he was thinking of purchasing the home. Instead, the Ladder of Influence’s reflexive loop came into play. Her belief that “black men in my neighborhood are dangerous” influenced the data she selected and how she interpreted that data.

We experience this reflexive loop all the time. Let’s say I hold a belief that all men are bad drivers. I’ll pay close attention to every time my husband makes a mistake driving—I’ll select that data for interpretation and allow it to reinforce my existing belief—and discount or fail to notice all the times he drives perfectly well.

Think of the stories we hear on the news. Think of your work life. Your personal life. Can you think of examples where you or someone you know blazed up the ladder of inference and took action that ended up being misguided? What about examples of the reflexive loop reinforcing existing beliefs?

Getting Curious: What Else Might Be True?

The power of this model is simply to bring awareness to the process we go through to draw conclusions and form beliefs. It shows us that there’s a lot happening in our brains that doesn’t rise to the level of our consciousness.

Ultimately, it encourages curiosity and awareness. It helps us to understand that there are things we do not see; things we may not know.

I’d invite you to try this out. The next time you’re in a new or challenging situation, think about the Ladder of Inference and ask yourself, “What else might be true?”