The Ladder of Inference

How We See Others and the World Around Us

How many times in daily life do we make assumptions about others and the world around us? Hundreds of times a day? Thousands? And how many times are those assumptions wrong? How often do we jump to conclusions? A lot more than we might like to admit, I fear.

There’s a helpful model for thinking about this process of making assumptions and taking action-- it’s called the ladder of inference. The ladder of inference was first proposed by Harvard professor, Chris Arjaris. Imagine a tiny ladder in your brain and every interaction we have with others and the world enters our brain on the bottom rung. Data from that interaction zips up the ladder faster than the blink of an eye and exits at the top rung when we draw conclusions and take action.

  1. Observable data: What we see or hear
  2. Selected data: The filtered data we choose to focus on
  3. Assumptions: We think we know others’ motivations
  4. Conclusions: We think things must be a certain way
  5. Beliefs: Reinforced, or we adopt new ways of seeing others or the world
  6. Actions: We do something based on our newfound (or often, reinforced) conclusions
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Let’s walk through a plausible student-teacher interaction as an example. The teacher, Mr. Right, begins class and writes on the board; several students take out their notebooks, some talk to neighbors, a few finish scraps of their lunches, and one student, Melissa Misunderstood, taps away on her phone with her thumbs. When he turns around and surveys the room, Mr. Right’s eyes settle on Melissa. Mr. Right looks as her and thinks to himself, she looks like she’s not paying attention. I think Melissa is texting, he concludes. She is more interested in her social life than her school work. Mr. Right knows that this is true because lately he’s observed her on her phone more than once during his lectures, and has also noticed that Melissa seems to be involved in drama in the hallway during passing periods. Today’s incident confirms his belief that Melissa is not a good student and needs to be taught a lesson. She never pays attention in class, and I’ve had enough! Mr. Right calls her name in front of the class, and asks her what could be so captivating on her phone. “We’d all like to know, Ms. Misunderstood.” Sheepishly, Melissa puts her phone in her bag.  

So what is so problematic about this interaction? The trouble with our own ladders is that we often select what data to focus on based on our beliefs. Mr. Right already believed that Melissa was not a good student. He selected the data that supported this belief. The other trouble with our ladders is that we take action without considering that our conclusions may be based on filtered data. Mr. Right didn’t notice that she was looking at the board, where the homework was written, while she was typing. Or that other students were also talking or eating.

So what can we do to short circuit our own ladders? First we need to question our assumptions and conclusions. If Mr. Right had stopped to consider what else could be going on with Melissa, he might not have chosen to call her out in front of the class. Second, we need to seek understanding with open-ended questions. Mr. Right could have noted what Melissa was doing, and made a mental notes to ask her about her use of the phone after class. Melissa may have been able to explain that she’s using her phone to keep track of her assignments, especially because she knows when she leaves class she gets distracted by her friends.

We can more clearly see others and the world around us when we strive to stay low on the ladder of inference. The goal isn’t to stay on the bottom rung, however. The goal is to make prudent, informed decisions and take action based on a more nuanced understanding of what the data could mean.

Teachers, managers, parents, kids-- anyone can use this information about the ladder of inference.  We all could and should pay attention to our own ladders, as well as seek to understand how others might be zipping up their own.


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