Ladder of Inference

October 28, 2014

You pull off the Washington Bridge in New York like Sherman McCoy, the protagonist and self-proclaimed “Master of the Universe” in The Bonfire of the Vanities. You find yourself in a dark and uncomfortable place with smoldering cars that have been picked over for parts.  Your fear mounts, your adrenaline pumps, your heart races, and you desperately search for a safe way out. You perceive threats everywhere. All your avenues for escape appear closed. It’s just you. What do you do?

When flight doesn’t appear to be an option, Sherman McCoy shifts into fight mode. Overwhelmed by fear and desperate to escape, he winds up killing someone.

But was Sherman really facing the danger he imagined? Or did he simply feel in danger, by virtue of the data he observed and the beliefs he’d previously formed along racial, ethnic, gender, social, and economic lines?

Organizational psychologist Chris Argyris, a Harvard professor, uses what he calls the “Ladder of Inference” to explain how we take actions based upon beliefs–and how our beliefs, in turn, lead us to select observational data. In short, the Ladder of Influence helps us better understand Sherman McCoy’s actions and biases, as well as our own.

Ladder of Inference

There are seven rungs on the Ladder of Inference (going from bottom to top):

Notice how we don’t always start our thoughts on the first rung of the ladder. The reflexive loop indicates that once we form beliefs, we tend not to observe environmental data objectively. We start on the second rung, with the selection of data. And when it comes to selecting data, we’re predisposed to select data that affirms our beliefs–even if these beliefs are ill-formed and prejudiced (the way Sherman McCoy’s are).

Because of this reflexive loop, our thought processes can lead to both vicious and virtuous cycles. Much depends on the accuracy of our beliefs and our willingness to test them.

Here are some questions you might ask to test your beliefs and make sure you’re starting on the first rung (not further up the ladder):

  • Are there facts we’re not considering just because they don’t support our instincts/beliefs?
  • What bias or biases does the group or I have that have not been discussed?
  • Who do we need to invite into this process to ensure that we are not letting bias and assumptions into our thinking process?
  • Is this true? Is this really true?
  • Is this the best course of action or just the one that feels most familiar?
  • Are there alternative courses to take that may be more productive?

The Ladder of Inference can help you identify where you are currently in your thought- and decision-making process. Once you’ve figured out which rung you’re on, question how you came to be in that place. This sort of awareness and testing will help uproot faulty assumptions and beliefs.

The Ladder of Inference will help you be more mindful about objectivity and subject position. The following steps will help instantiate that objectivity:

  1. When debating a topic, don’t start with conclusions. Start with an objective review of underlying facts.
  2. Bring cognitive diversity into the discussion to improve results.
  3. Constantly test your and others’ interpretations.
  4. Use inquiry to break down poor thinking.
  5. Make sure you’ve examined the issue from multiple perspectives.

The more you think through the seven steps on the Ladder of Inference and investigate your objectivity, the more you will deliver effective and objectively-sound decisions.

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