PQ 7.3 — The Ladder of Inference: Challenging Our Assumptions

a white ladder in a field. Off to the left is a dark area with a point of light shining
Image by Indi Samarajiva / CC BY

PQ 7.3 — If I hear a hidden meaning in a statement or a question, do I ask for clarification before acting on my assumptions?

This is the 49th PQ installment. Up until now, the chapter-end More than Two questions have been running up to this issue and brushing by it in a dark, crowded room. But the time has finally arrived to meet things head on.

Today we’re going to talk about the Ladder of Inference.

What Is the Ladder of Inference?

The ladder of inference is a thinking process that we go through, without realizing that we do. The concept is attributed to Chris Argyris, a well-known organizational learning and development expert from Harvard Business School (who passed away a few years ago).

At the bottom of the ladder of inference are facts and reality. Starting from experiencing these we then climb up the ladder and go on to:

  • Experience this reality through a selective filter based on our belief systems and our life experiences.
  • Interpret what our filtered experiences mean.
  • Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without examining those assumptions.
  • Form conclusions based on our interpretation of facts and our existing assumptions.
  • Develop beliefs based on these conclusions we draw.
  • Take action that seems correct to us because they are based on what we believe.

As one would expect, this process is recursive. It feeds on itself. What we believe biases us to look for things that solidify, rather than challenge, those beliefs (a.k.a, confirmation bias).

By narrowing our selection of original information to consider (in alignment with our beliefs), we stack the odds that we’ll come to similar conclusions in the future.

And after a while? Instead of even climbing up the ladder? We jump right to conclusions.

Towards More Mindful Climbing

Now, I don’t say this just to depress you. The more aware we are of the individual steps we have taken to reach a conclusion, and the more actively we check and challenge our belief system, the less likely we are to fall prey to the worst of its effects.

I mentioned this process in a recent post, specifically regarding building emotional security in polyamorous relationships.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you feel yourself slipping up the rungs:

  • Am I considering all the facts? What are some things that I didn’t consider that I should?
  • What assumptions am I making? Are these assumptions reality based?
  • What beliefs are guiding me through this decision-making process? Are these beliefs well founded? Why or why not?
  • What data have I decided to focus on and why? What data have I ignored?

As you practice taking a second to slow down, make a note of which rungs you tend to skip past.

Consider talking through your reasoning with someone else, particularly someone who is comfortable enough to disagree with or correct you if there’s something you’re not seeing.

With sustained practice and time, you’ll find that you’re jumping to conclusions less — although I don’t know anyone who doesn’t slip up every once in a while (especially when it comes to our hot buttons).

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And swiveling back around again to answer today’s question, if you’re talking to someone, especially someone very close to you, and you hear a hidden meaning in a statement or a question, absolutely ask for clarification before acting on your assumptions. Remember the ladder of inference.

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This post is part of a series in which I answer each of the chapter-end questions in More than Two with an essay. For the entire list of questions & answers, please see this indexed list.

 

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