Ladder of Inference Activity

Key learnings for participants:justladder350

  • It is important to be aware of assumptions, and recognize one is
making them, though sometimes it will be necessary to make
assumptions (due to urgency of decisions, lacking complete
Dynamic tension between speed of decisions and cost of gathering
complete information (it is not practical to have all facts before
making decisions; assumptions are necessary)
  • Balance the need for task completion (certainty) with full
consideration of the impact of each decision (made with incomplete
information) upon the final conclusions
  • Increased awareness and sharing of assumptions can improve decision
  • Individuals often have different levels of comfort with making 
assumptions (i.e., ambiguity)
  • Assumptions made by individuals (even for same questions) are
Participants begin to recognize assumptions/inferences as they move
down the list >> Lesson: continually assess environment and be
willing to revisit decisions as new information becomes available
  • Interdependence of assumptions increases the complexity tremendously


A businessman had just turned off the lights in the store when a man appeared and demanded money. The owner opened a cash register. The contents of the cash register were scooped up and the man sped away. A member of the police force was notified. Can you correctly respond to all of the following fifteen statements?

  1. A man appeared after the owner had turned off his store lights.
  2. The robber was a man.
  3. The man who appeared did not demand money.
  4. The man who opened the cash register was the owner.
  5. The store owner scooped up the contents of the cash register and ran away.
  6. Someone opened a cash register.
  7. After the man who demanded the money scooped up the contents of the cash register, he ran away.
  8. While the cash register contained money, the story does not state how much.
  9. The robber demanded money of the owner.
  10. A businessman had just turned off the lights when a man appeared in the store.
  11. It was broad daylight when the man appeared.
  12. The man who appeared opened the cash register.
  13. No one demanded money.
  14. The story concerns a series of events in which only three persons are referred to: the owner of the store, a man who demanded money, and a member of the police force.
  15. The following events were included in the story: someone demanded money, a cash register was opened, its contents were scooped up, and a man dashed out of the store.


Ask the students or participants to read the photocopied version of “The Story” and complete the 15 questions that follow. Inform them that they have all the information needed to complete the exercise and that it must be done independently. It is best to be vague about how to respond. Let the participants figure out their own system: True or False, Yes or No, or Don’t Know. When finished, they are to turn their papers over and remain quiet. The responses may not be changed afterwards.


Write 15 numbers from top to bottom on a flip chart and ask how they answered each of the questions. At this point it is appropriate to write the categories True, False, Don’t Know at the top of the chart and then take a tally by asking, “How many of you said that #1 is True? How many answered False? How many don’t know?” Go through all 15 questions without analyses or comments. Remind the participants that they must read directly from the answer sheet.

The participants may now talk about their responses, explain the reasoning behind each. Some might ask if the businessman and the owner are the same person, for example. Some will note that they voted either True or False and never considered the possibility of insufficient data to justify their choice. Some might note that they didn’t read all the details accurately. Many might even complain that crucial evidence was deliberately withheld, and most will insist on knowing the “right” answers.
Resist the temptation to spend the entire session on this discussion, so break it up by explaining that only three of the statements can be justifiably labeled True or False. These are #3, #6, and #13.

At this point, introduce the “Ladder of Inference” and be open to discussion. Help students discover how easy it is to jump to conclusions and make hasty decisions if data is distorted by our perceptions, attitudes, socio-cultural influences, and personal belief system.

Tips for classroom teachers:
After discussing these concepts at length, the students in a writing class, for example, have been known to create clearer theses statements with substantial supporting elements. Students participating in peer critiques learn to frame questions more appropriately, thereby helping the writers clarify purpose and content. Likewise, students in reading classes learn to be more critical when reading, making more “educated” inferences. In short, a facilitator can use this concept in countless ways to expand the creative, innovative, and critical thinking skills of students in a classroom community.

Debrief Process
The first step in the de-brief is to list the numbers 1-15 on a flip-chart
and, for each question, ask for a simple count of the individuals who
answered the question True, False or with a “?”. Here again, it is
important to remind participants to read directly from their answer sheet,
regardless of whether they begin to doubt their original answers as the
de-brief proceeds. Defer all conversation until after you’ve gathered the
data for all of the questions.

After you’ve completed the tally for all 15 questions, you may simply open
the floor for conversation about the exercise. You may wish to ask
participants to “rationalize” their answers to one or more questions where
there seems to be divergent opinion in the group. For example, question
#1 requires an assumption that the “business man” referenced in the story
is also “the owner”.

Only questions #3, #6 and #13 are unequivocably True or False based upon
the *facts* contained in the story. *All* other statements require an
inference or assumption to be made before the question could be answered
as True or False. And remember, you should not ask participants to answer
the statements as True or False; ask them only to “complete the
statements” when you distribute the exercise.

As referenced in my earlier posting, I use “The Story” to introduce the
Ladder of Inference and Angles of Inference models. These “tools of
inference” are then used to enable meaningful conversation during our work
together as a small group. I’ve included below some of the observations
and insights gathered during my previous work with groups using this
I would welcome your input for improving this exercise, and/or your
willingness to share your experiences using The Story or other exercises
to introduce these valuable concepts. Good luck!

Observations and Insights gathered from previous groups
Assumptions often made by participants:
* if a statement is not definitively true, then it must be false
(this assumption is reflective of linear thinking)
* it is inappropriate to challenge the -rules-, as represented by (T/F)
* -right vs. wrong- assumptions
* -win-lose- vs. -win-win- assumptions

Further Tips
Instead of leading to genuine inquiry and learning, the process of exposing mental models can lead to frustration, uncertainty and anger on the part of the participants.

Be aware of the potential emotional aspect of this process and build in strategies for pacing, building comfort in the process, and dealing with communication impasses.

Skillful group facilitation skills are necessary to use this technique.



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