The Ladder of Inference: Is Your Decision Quick or Rash?

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There is a meeting going on. Someone is giving a presentation, let us call him person A. He expects everyone to pay attention to what he is saying. He spots person B “fidgeting” with his phone. He assumes B is not interested and thus has a problem with him, and at the end of the meeting when B tries to appreciate the presentation, A gives him a cold response.

Turns out, B was on his phone, but contrary to A’s assumption, for a completely different reason: he had forgotten to put his phone on silent, and had just remembered this. So he was just changing the phone settings quickly so that he can pay attention properly to what A had to say. And since it was a new phone B had just recently bought, he was taking more than usual to navigate the settings, he was still getting used to it. B was in fact,  not “fidgeting” with his phone.

Jumping to conclusions is something we are all guilty of. Most of the times it happens unconsciously. We are always in a hurry these days, and any lag in the mechanism is not acceptable. But it is important to be aware about the thin line between a quick decision and a rash decision.

 The Ladder of Inference, also known as the “Process of Abstraction”, is a phenomenon pioneered by organisational psychologist Chris Argyris, and applied by Pete Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation.


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In an era of making snap decisions and quick judgements, it is necessary to remember and when possible, apply this conceptual understanding in our corporate interactions. This is a tool that would take us a step closer to objectivity, accuracy and balance.

Now, the Ladder of Inference gives an analogy of our thought processes, as the name suggests, through rungs of a ladder.

  • The first rung is that of Reality and Facts.
  • We then take in and process the reality and facts selectively according to our past experiences and associations. This is the rung of Selected Reality.
  • According to our experiences and associations, we interpret those facts and the reality. This is the rung of Interpreted Reality.
  • We then apply the assumptions that the Interpreted Reality gives us.
  • We draw conclusions based on those assumptions.
  • We form beliefs because we “climbed” to the conclusions.
  • Our actions then are based on those beliefs.

So if we look at the example given, in the reality of the presentation and the meeting:

  • Person A took in and processed the reality of B using his phone according to the former’s existing associations and experience set. There was a process of selection.
  • Person A thus interpreted that B was fidgeting with his phone.
  • He thus assumed that B was not paying attention.
  • So, Person A formed the belief that B must have a problem with him.
  • So, according to this belief, A begins to give a cold shoulder to B. The former’s actions are now governed by the Ladder of Inference he climbed.

One only needs to imagine what would happen if the “conflict” kept on brewing and if it never got addressed.

Let us take another example. Miss Y went for an interview in a crumpled shirt. The interviewer Miss Z  made an assumption in her head that Miss Y is untidy and not so nicely groomed and hence unprofessional. But she decided to not jump to conclusions, and hence decided to simply ask Miss Y the reason for her untidiness. Miss Y then replied that she lives very far away, and she had actually ironed her clothes well, but the three hour crowded local train journey in the heat took away all the crispness.

Miss Z simply paused and asked herself in a quick mental process:

  • Had she dug up enough data?
  • Was the assumption well-founded?
  • Would the assumption lead to a valid conclusion?
  • Had she considered all facts, and are there any other facts she should be looking at?
  • What belief is her action based on, and is there any other better way to act based on a different belief?

These seemingly simple questions go a long way.

All it takes is asking questions at each rung to ensure dialogue, co-operation and better decision making.

The Ladder of Inference thus proves to be useful, in order to not fall off. The rung allows us to be mindful about our thought process and the steps we take while making decisions. Taking conscious pauses while climbing the rung could eventually turn into an unconscious habit, leading us a step closer to making well-informed, well-balanced just decisions.