Ladder of Inference


Chris Argyris (1990) describes the progressive process of making observations, gathering information, making assumptions, and deciding action as being similar to climbing up on a “ladder of inference.”  This concept was later used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. 

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.ladder-of-inference
  • Interpret what they mean.
  • Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without considering them (heuristics).
  • 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 data, and can lead us to ignore the facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions – by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.

More Details, Examples and Activities Below

Through his research, Argyris has discovered that every person has tendencies to climb up the ladder of inference too fast. Almost instantaneously after seeing or hearing someone else speak or act, individuals integrate the new observation/information with their existing set of assumptions, sometimes prompting action that has only minimal relationship to what was originally spoken or observed.

When this same ladder-climbing dynamic happens within a social or organizational setting, an environment for conflict is created that easily escalates.

We are so skilled at thinking that we jump up the ladder without knowing it:

  • We tacitly register some data and ignore other data.
  • We impose our own interpretations on these data and draw conclusions from them.
  • We lose sight of how we do this because we do not think about our thinking.
  • Hence, our conclusions feel so obvious to us that we see no need to retrace the steps we took from the data we selected to the conclusions we reached.

The contexts we are in, our assumptions, and our values channel how we jump up the ladder:

  • Our models of how the world works and our repertoire of actions influence the data we select, the interpretations we make, and the conclusions we draw.
  • Our conclusions lead us to act in ways that produce results that feed back to reinforce (usually) our contexts and assumptions.

Our skill at reasoning is both essential and gets us in trouble:

  • If we thought about each inference we made, life would pass us by.
  • But people can and do reach different conclusions. When they view their conclusions as obvious, no one sees a need to say how they reached them.
  • When people disagree, they often hurl conclusions at each other from the tops of their respective ladders.
  • This makes it hard to resolve differences and to learn from one another.

The Ladder of Inference Model can be used to help individuals recognize the kinds of inferences they are making, the assumptions implicit in these inferences, the conclusions they lead to, and the effects that acting on these inferences have in the individuals’ organizational settings. Then, it can help individuals consider that there are other alternative inferences, learn to inquire and check out potential inferences, and ultimately act in more effective ways. For example, individuals can be helped to slow down and focus on the inferential steps and implicit assumptions they are using in abstracting conclusions from the original data of an event. Usually, these inferential processes are done quickly, skillfully, without awareness – so an individual may need assistance in reconstructing his/her implicit steps and reexamining the inferences and attributions made along the way. This kind of off-line analysis can help individuals learn about their typical response patterns and become more skillful in recognizing and avoiding such ineffective patterns as they deal with future events.

GREAT Example for Illustrating the Ladder of Inference Model
In the following illustration of this model, we consider a situation in which two individuals, X and Y, were participants – and then we consider a range of possible interpretations and responses by X to the actions of and verbatim words spoken by Y (i.e., “the data”). Briefly, the data are:
X and Y are both VPs, reporting to the president of a company. In an executive staff meeting X has just made a proposal to develop a new line of business. Y leans forward and speaks, rather loudly: “Certainly the company needs some new business options. This is a creative, interesting idea, but I have a lot of questions. What is the basis for your conclusion that this project would break-even in less than one year?”
Now, let’s consider a range of possible ways that X might make sense of this brief interaction. Four different possibilities are summarized below, in order of increasing distance or extrapolation from the original data. These possibilities are referred to as different steps up the “ladder of inference,” a model in which increasing extrapolation beyond the original data is represented by taking additional steps up the ladder.

  1. 1. X could possibly describe (report objectively and accurately) what Y said and did (step 1 above); however, it is likely that X would operate at one or more steps removed from the verbatim data to select and derive meaning (make sense) of what happened. It is likely that X will at least move to step 2 on the ladder of inference, in which X selects a portion of Y’s observable actions and verbatim words for attention, e.g., X might select and focus on Y’s statement: “… but I have a lot of questions…” and that Y was speaking loudly.
  2. X may move further beyond the data to step 3 on the ladder of inference. At this step X might infer or attribute meaning, which may be different from the verbatim statements and likely goes beyond the common cultural meaning of the utterance. Inferences at this level are quite specific to the individual. One possible example of X’s thinking could be:Y is trying to make me look bad and shoot down my proposal.
  3. X may move even further beyond the data to steps 4 and 5 of the ladder of inference by developing conclusions, including attributions about Y’s motives and evaluations of Y’s actions and utterances. One possible example is:

Y is a {expletives deleted} lazy bureaucrat who wouldn’t know a good idea if it hit him in the face! He’s not willing to hustle and make things happen, but doesn’t want anyone else to make him look bad by their accomplishments. The president should have fired him years ago!

It should be clear that, each time X moves further up the ladder of inference, she/her moves further from the actual data about what occurred in the event and, therefore, he/she is more prone to error. Also, as one moves further up the ladder, it is increasingly likely that the inferences, attributions, and evaluations of different participants will differ. For example, an alternative inference at the step 3 (which might be the inference made by a different individual observing the same event) is:

Y is asking some important questions that X didn’t address adequately in his presentation. Y is really looking after the company’s interests and future.

By using the Ladder of Inference, you can be intentional and learn to get back to the data 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.

Check out this Ladder of Inference activity to use with your team.

Argyris, Chris (1990). Overcoming organizational defenses: Facilitating organizational learning. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Senge, Peter et al (1994). The fifth discipline fieldbook. NY: Currency/Doubleday



Posted on 1 Comment