The Ladder of Inference
Have you ever been cut off in traffic? If you’re anything like me, just reading that first sentence can set your emotions to a slow boil. When you get cut off, lose your parking spot, or fall victim to some other blatant traffic injustice, a sequence of steps begin to unfold in your mind, like the slow unwrapping of an unwelcomed gift, that move you from observable fact to belief-based response in an instance. And if your emotions aren’t held tightly in check, you can ‘lose your religion’ in less time than it take to slam on the brakes.
Why do many of us react this way? What is it that moves some of us from experience to emotion, while others seem unmoved by similar circumstances?
Recently I came across an article that described a concept called “The Ladder of Inference” developed by Chris Argyris, American business theorist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School. The Ladder of Inference describes the subconscious mental process we go through to arrive at decisions and actions from the data and facts around us.
Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have reality and facts. From there, we climb each rung of the ladder as we:
@Experience these facts selectively based on our beliefs and prior experience.
@Interpret what they mean.
@Apply our existing assumptions and biases, sometimes without ever 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 cycle that can lead us to ignore the truth completely. The more we come to believe something as fact, the more we eliminate data that doesn’t support our beliefs. It’s a phenomenon known as a “reflexive loop”: our beliefs, formed from the conclusions we draw, influence what data we select next time. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions – by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.
Everyone Has Their Own Ladder
The reality is that everyone carries around in their heads their own ladders of inference. All throughout the day we are running up these mental ladders, attempting to make sense of and make decisions based on what we observe in the world around us, all in the blink of an eye. The key isn’t to try and stay off the ladder, but to recognize when we are climbing each rung and its critical role in our reasoning process.
This is even more crucial when it comes to group decision-making. Imagine sitting around the table with your executive team trying to make sense of complicated data, reach consensus on critical conclusions, and make decisions that impact the future of your organization while everyone is running up and down their own mental ladders unchecked.
Never mind the politics, power moves, and popular traditions that muddy the strategic waters.
Just as the Ladder of Inference is a model for understanding how our reasoning works (or doesn’t work), it can also be used as a tool to help individuals and teams get back to the facts and use their beliefs and experiences to multiply impact, rather than allowing this progression to narrow fields of judgment. Doing so can lead your team to better results, avoiding unnecessary mistakes and conflict along the way.
You Know What Happens When You Assume
There are many methods for leveraging the Ladder of Inference to your advantage, tackling the various rungs so that better decisions can be made. For this series of posts, we’ll focus on the middle rung, which serves as a key pivot point in the whole process. Right in the center of the Ladder, the halfway point of this progression, we apply our assumptions to the data we’re experiencing, allowing our cognitive biases and mental models to form our conclusions and influence our beliefs. It is through the filter of our assumptions that we ultimately shape our decisions and set courses of action. Left unchecked, we stumble haplessly into the status quo, essentially making the same decisions again and again while expecting different results. Managed properly, teams can uncover blind spots and gaps that allow for robust conversations and novel conclusions that can unlock thinking and unleash results.
Over the next few weeks we’ll take a look at several common assumptions and biases that threaten to derail strategic decisions. We’re calling them “The 7 Deadly Assumptions”. Following a brief exploration of each assumption, we’ll look at a few practical ways to deal with our biases so that resources are not wasted and impact, instead can be multiplied. Here are the assumptions or biases we’ll be covering:
- Assumption 1 – Anchoring: Our first ideas are our best ideas.
- Assumption 2 – Framing: The options within our field of view are the only ones we need to consider.
- Assumption 3 – Confirmation Bias: Seeking information that supports our decisions while ignoring data that challenges them.
- Assumption 4 – Insider Bias: Others understand the issue they way that I do.
- Assumption 5 – Gambler’s Fallacy: Past events will influence future outcomes.
- Assumption 6 – Overconfidence: Thinking we know more about how the future will turn out than we really do.
- Assumption 7 – Commitment Escalation: Pouring more effort and resources into our decisions will increase our chances of success.
You’re probably all too familiar with some of these. Others may be new or unknown. By the end of the series, our hope is you will become a master at turning your assumptions into assets for your church, your community, and the Kingdom!
HUB: The Right Environment for Overcoming Assumptions
As you’ll see in the weeks ahead, much of the secret of overcoming assumptions relates to your environment. The place in which you conduct your planning and the process you follow have a tremendous impact on the outcome of your efforts. Leadership Network has developed our newest experience, HUB, to be the right environment, place and process, for teams to overcome assumptions, exchange ideas, gain insights, and accelerate results in several key ministry areas. To learn more, tap or click on the banner below.