Ladder of Inference
Whenever we make decisions, there are a series of mental processes that fire. Most of them happen unconsciously and very quickly in our brains. In this way, we can sometimes jump to conclusions that are based on faulty or incomplete data. So how do we avoid this?
We use the Ladder of Inference. Created by Harvard professor Chris Argyris, it's a tool that helps us ground our thinking in reality and fill in the gaps in our reasoning. It's particularly useful for bigger decisions or situations where it's difficult to articulate why we're thinking a certain way. So let's jump into it!
There are 7 steps on the ladder that represent how we think.
Here's what it looks like from the ground up:
Available data: This is the information that's available to us. It's what we can observe.
Selected data: Based on what's available, we pay attention to certain parts. Often based on our past experiences and existing beliefs (cue confirmation bias!), we select from what's available.
Interpretations: We then make sense of the data. This is where we give facts meaning.
Assumptions: Based on our interpretations, this is what we then assume to be true.
Conclusions: We then draw conclusions based on our assumptions.
Beliefs: Our beliefs are then developed from the conclusions we make.
Actions: And finally! We take actions rooted in what we believe to be true.
As we mentioned earlier, this process usually happens very quickly and without conscious thought. Understanding this ladder, and applying it to complex situations (whether personal or professional) can help us step back and see if we're jumping to conclusions.
How to use it
There are three simple steps.
Identify which step of the ladder you're on.
Work your way down the ladder. Here we want to check our reasoning, and see if there's any leaps!
To do this we can ask ourselves:
Actions: Why do I believe this to be the right action? What are some alternatives?
Beliefs: What beliefs do I hold about this? What conclusions are they based on?
Conclusions: Why did I draw this conclusion? What are my assumptions there?
Assumptions: Are these assumptions valid? What makes me assume this?
Interpretations: Am I assessing the data objectively? What other meanings could they hold?
Selected data: Did I ignore any data? What didn't I pay attention to? Are there any other sources I haven't considered?
As you work your way down the ladder, you may find that your reasoning changes and that's a great sign! When you reach the bottom of the ladder, jump to Step 3.
Nice! Now it's time to work your back up the ladder. This time you'll be more conscious of each rung of the ladder. This will help you be more deliberate with the decision you make.
Tying it together
The Ladder of Inference is a nifty tool to help ground your decisions in reality. By moving through the seven mental processes, you can get a clearer picture of your reasoning and ensure you're not jumping to any conclusions.