The Ladder of Inference

Avoiding "Jumping to Conclusions"

The Ladder of Inference

Don't just "dive in" and make a decision right away.

© iStockphoto/abbesses

Have you ever been accused of "putting 2 and 2 together and making 5", meaning that the other person thinks you have jumped to the wrong conclusion?

In today's fast-moving world, we are always under pressure to act now, rather than spend time reasoning things through and thinking about the true facts.

Not only can this lead us to a wrong conclusion, but it can also cause conflict with other people, who may have drawn quite different conclusions on the same matter.

Especially in a fast business environment, you need to make sure your actions and decisions are founded on reality.

Similarly, when you accept or challenge other people's conclusions, you need be confident that their reasoning, and yours, is firmly based on the true facts. The "Ladder of Inference" helps you achieve this.

Sometimes known as the "Process of Abstraction", this tool helps you understand the thinking steps that can lead you to jump to wrong conclusions, and so helps you get back to hard reality and facts.

The Ladder of Inference was first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

Understanding the Theory

The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder and are shown in Figure 1.

Ladder of Inference Diagram

Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have reality and facts. From there, we:

  • Experience these selectively based on our beliefs and prior experience.
  • Interpret what they mean.
  • Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without considering them.
  • Draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions.
  • Develop beliefs based on these conclusions.
  • Take actions that seem "right" because they are based on what we believe.

This can create a vicious circle. Our beliefs have a big effect on how we select from reality, and can lead us to ignore the true facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions – by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.

By using the Ladder of Inference, you can learn to get back to the facts and use your beliefs and experiences to positive effect, rather than allowing them to narrow your field of judgment. Following this step-by-step reasoning can lead you to better results, based on reality, so avoiding unnecessary mistakes and conflict.

How to Use the Theory

The Ladder of Inference helps you draw better conclusions, or challenge other people's conclusions based on true facts and reality. It can be used to help you analyze hard data, such as a set of sales figures, or to test assertions, such as "the project will go live in April". You can also use it to help validate or challenge other people's conclusions.

The step-by-step reasoning process helps you remain objective and, when working or challenging others, reach a shared conclusion without conflict.

Tip 1:

Use the Ladder of Inference at any of stage of your thinking process. If you're asking any of the following questions, the model may prove a useful aid:

  • Is this the "right" conclusion?
  • Why am I making these assumptions?
  • Why do I think this is the "right" thing to do?
  • Is this really based on all the facts?
  • Why does he believe that?

Use the following steps to challenge thinking using the Ladder of Inference:

  1. Stop! It's time to consider your reasoning.
  2. Identify where on the ladder you are. Are you:
    • Selecting your data or reality?
    • Interpreting what it means?
    • Making or testing assumptions?
    • Forming or testing conclusions?
    • Deciding what to do and why?
  3. From your current "rung", analyze your reasoning by working back down the ladder. This will help you trace the facts and reality that you are actually working with.

    At each stage, ask yourself WHAT you are thinking and WHY. As you analyze each step, you may need to adjust your reasoning. For example you may need to change some assumption or extend the field of data you have selected.

    The following questions help you work backwards (coming down the ladder, starting at the top):

    • Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
    • What belief lead to that action? Was it well-founded?
    • Why did I draw that conclusion? is the conclusion sound?
    • What am I assuming, and why? Are my assumptions valid?
    • What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data rigorously?
    • What are the real facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I should consider?

    Tip 2:

    When you are working through your reasoning, look out for rungs that you tend to jump. Do you tend to make assumptions too easily? Do you tend to select only part of the data? Note you tendencies so that you can learn to do that stage of reasoning with extra care in the future.

  4. With a new sense of reasoning (and perhaps a wider field of data and more considered assumptions), you can now work forwards again – step-by-step – up the rungs of the ladder.

    Tip 3:

    Try explaining your reasoning to a colleague or friend. This will help you check that your argument is sound.

    If you are challenging someone else's conclusions, it is especially important to be able to explain your reasoning so that you can explain it to that person in a way that helps you reach a shared conclusion and avoid conflict.

Example

The regional Sales Manager has just read the latest sales figures. Sales in Don's territory are down – again. It's simply not good enough. He needs to be fired!

Most people would agree that the Sales Manager may have just jumped to a rash conclusion. So let's see how the scenario plays using the Ladder of Inference:

The latest month's sales figures (reality) have come in, and the Sales Manager immediately focuses on Don's territory (selected reality). Sales are down on the previous months again (interpreted reality). The Sales Manager assumes that the drop in sales is entirely to do with the Don's performance (assumption), and decides that Don hasn't been performing well (conclusion). So he forms the opinion that Don isn't up to the job (belief). He feels that firing Don is the best options (action).

Now let's challenge the Sales Manager's thinking using the Ladder of Inference:

The Sales Manager came to the sales figures with an existing belief that Don, a new salesmen, couldn't possibly be as good as the "old-timers" who he has trained for years. He focused on Don's territory because Don is the newest salesman, and selected facts that supported what he already believed (that Don wouldn't be doing a good job).

To get back to facts and reality, we must challenge the Sales Manager's selection of data and his assumptions about Don's likely performance.

Although the figures are down in Don's territory, they have actually dipped less than in other areas. Don is actually a great salesman, but he and his colleagues have in fact been let down by new products being delayed, and by old products running out of stock.

Once the Sales Manager changes his assumptions, he will see the need to focus on solving the production issues. He can also learn from Don – how is it that Don has performed better than other sales people in the face of stock problems? Can others learn from him?

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