The Ladder of Inference : Why we jump to conclusions (and how to avoid it)
By Lucas King
Have you ever been in a disagreement or intense discussion with someone in a group and wondered how in the world you could see the same thing so differently? Have you ever accused someone else – or been accused – of jumping to conclusions?
The reason we jump to conclusions can be explained by a mental model called the “Ladder of Inference.” The model explains how we quickly and unconsciously move from the facts of a situation to a conclusion (and why our conclusions are sometimes wrong).
You can use the Ladder of Inference as a communication and decision-making tool to help yourself and others avoid jumping to conclusions. If you put this tool into practice you will be able to improve your decision-making and work better with others in your team, partnership, or network – where agreement, consensus, and group decision-making are so critical.
What is the Ladder of Inference?
The Ladder of Inference is a mental model first described by organizational psychologist, Chris Argyris, and later popularized by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline. The ladder is made up of 7 rungs or stages that outline the rapid process our minds go through to make conclusions and take action in a given situation.
Here is how the Ladder of Inference works, step-by-step:
1. Experiences / Observations / Reality. Beginning at the first step, we experience or observe the world. These are the facts of the situation.
2. Filtering / Selected Reality. At the second step, our minds automatically and constantly filter out data that we think is irrelevant based on our beliefs and prior experiences.
3. Meaning / Interpretation. At the third step, we assign or interpret the meaning of the data / information / observation / experience / situation.
4. Assumptions. Next, we apply our existing assumptions (sometimes without considering them) and develop further assumptions based on our interpretation of the situation.
5. Conclusions. At the fifth step, we draw conclusions (and emotional reactions) based on our interpretations and assumptions.
6. Beliefs. Based on our conclusions, we affirm or adjust our beliefs about the situation, the context, and the world around us.
7. Actions. Finally, we take action that seems right to us based on our beliefs. Our actions then change the situation and create a new set of circumstances. So, the cycle begins again.
What implications does this have for me?
This entire step-by-step process on the Ladder of Inference happens almost instantaneously, thousands of times a day, inside our minds. It is a normal and natural process. It is simply how our brains are wired. The ladder works because it is a very efficient process of filtering, interpreting, applying, and acting on our experiences.
But there is a problem.
A big problem.
The problem is that we act as if other people see the world the same as we do, so when we disagree with others, we usually disagree about conclusions. We assume that we have selected the same sub-set of data and interpreted the meaning in the same way. We assume that our assumptions are the same. And so, we “leap” up the rungs of the ladder unconsciously, without testing or questioning our underlying assumptions. That is what we mean when we say someone is “jumping to conclusions.”
At the heart of the problem are our unspoken assumptions. In addition, there are two reinforcing loops in the process that affect how we see the world, and thus, how we interpret the world and act upon our experiences.
The first loop begins with our beliefs. Our beliefs loop back to affect how we selectively filter our experiences. We see the world not as it is, but as we believe it to be. That’s why magic tricks and illusions work. In truth, our minds need to filter reality because there is simply too much going on to process it all. We create generalizations and stereotypes because the abstractions are easier for our brains to manage that the constant barrage of details in the real world. It is a wonderfully efficient process, but it can also blind us, and that is the danger. The more narrow and rigid our beliefs become, the smaller our filtered or selected reality becomes.
The second loop has to do with how our actions can create self-fulfilling prophecies. When we act on a situation in a way that accords with our beliefs (and our underlying assumptions), we may create circumstances that only serve to reinforce faulty assumptions. I push you. You push back. Which “proves” to me that you were as “pushy” as I assumed you to be.
How can I apply this in my own situation?
If the Ladder of Inference is how our brains naturally work, how can we avoid jumping to conclusions? How can we avoid being blinded by our own beliefs? And how can we apply this to work through disagreements or conflicts with others who may see things very differently?
The next time you find yourself at odds with others over differing conclusions, try to follow these three steps:
1. Be aware of your own limitations. Understand how the ladder of inference works. Be aware that every person selectively filters their own experiences, interprets what they see, makes assumptions, and draws conclusions that may or may not be true to reality. We all have blind spots. If you want fix this idea in your own mind, or get the point across to your group or team, download and try the blind spot exercise.
2. Question your assumptions (and the assumptions of others). Most of the time, we come to conclusions without questioning our own unspoken assumptions. By the time we’ve come to a conclusion, we’ve also developed an emotional feeling about those conclusions. Try to get into the habit of asking yourself: “Am I missing anything here?” Ask others to explain their assumptions.
3. Make your thinking explicit. Finally, try to make your thinking explicit, especially in challenging situations where there may be conflict over differing conclusions. Most of the time, our process of coming to conclusions is quick and efficient. But not every situation in life requires split-second thinking. Sometimes, you need to slow down, explain your thinking process, and ask others to do the same. For example, you could try using the steps of the ladder to explain how you came to your conclusions:
Here is what I see …
And what I think is relevant about that is …
I take that to mean …
And I assume that …
So, here is my conclusion …
And that leads me to believe …
So, what I plan to do is …
Am I missing anything?
In this video by Trevor Maber, he explains the Ladder of Inference in more detail and shows what jumping to conclusions looks like in a real-world situation.
Don’t be tempted to think that jumping to conclusions on the Ladder of Inference is only applicable to our little everyday disagreements. The way our beliefs lead us to selectively filter our experiences can have huge implications in our life and work!
In this classic video, Joel Barker explains in 30 minutes how our mental filters – our “paradigms” – can cause us to miss out on important new ideas and resist change when it may be most needed.
Lucas King nearly died at the age of 5 when he accidentally locked himself in an old refrigerator. Having survived that experience, he now endeavors to help others think “outside the box.” For the most part, Lucas works deep underground in visionSynergy’s secret base of operations, where he is known as “The Librarian.” The local government recently connected a power transmission line directly to his computer keyboard when it was discovered that the kinetic energy of his furious typing could generate enough electricity for several small cities. This has resulted in massive amounts of government funding for visionSynergy by selling electricity to the surrounding areas. While many people live in constant fear that Lucas is making something in his laboratory that could end all life as we know it, he insists that it is “perfectly safe.” When he is not writing quirky bios, he serves as Associate Director for Resource Development with visionSynergy.