HOW CLIMBING THE LADDER OF INFERENCE LEADS TO FALSE CONCLUSIONS
cognitive levels and feedback loops
Have you ever watched someone overreacting to a situation and wondered what the hell they were thinking? Well, we may never really know what another person is thinking, but we can develop a better understanding of how people think and why we are all prone to reacting the ways that we do. Cognition can seem like a mysterious black box — we don’t see what happens inside, we just see the results as expressed through words and actions — but the Ladder of Inference is one tool for thinking about how we think.
Imagine a microscopic-sized ladder contained in the part of our brain that we’ll label our subconscious … Every time we interact with someone, that experience … zips up the ladder in a blink of an eye … This process happens thousands of times a day without us knowing it.
Rethinking Thinking | TED-Ed: Trevor Maber
As a simple metaphor for a complex system, the Ladder of Inference helps us understand some of the flaws in our default thinking process. It is, however, only useful up to a certain point. Ladders suggest that we go through an orderly step by step process, from observing to selecting to interpreting to assuming to concluding to believing to acting. Although it does not always help us understand the process as a whole, this linear systems perspective can help us describe the simpler parts of a complex process. Going rung by rung, from bottom to top, here is a tentative mapping of shared themes between the Ladder of Inference and an emergent systems perspective of cognition:
Sensation: Raw Data / Observed Reality and Facts
- Observable “data” and experiences
- I observe external data and occurrences
- What was going on at the time?
Perception: Filtered Data / Selected Reality
- I select “data” from what I observe
- I experience these facts selectively based on my beliefs and prior experience
- What was it that particularly got your attention, that stood out for you, or hit your buttons?
Association: Meanings / Interpreted Reality
- I add cultural and personal meanings
- I interpret what [the facts] mean
- How did you interpret these things and why?
- I make assumptions based on the meanings I added
- I make assumptions based on things “I know” and meanings I add
- What did you assume you and/or the other parties were up to, trying to achieve?
- I draw conclusions
- I draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and my assumptions
- In such circumstances what do you conclude is going on and what should you do?
- I adopt beliefs about the world
- I develop or update my beliefs based on these conclusions
- Over time, what have you come to believe about yourself and others on such similar circumstances?
- I take actions based on my beliefs
- I take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what I believe
- Based on these beliefs, what has been your behavior or actions?
Ladder of Inference | Pivotal Thinking
Ladder of Inference | Leadership Network
Ladder of Inference | Dalmau Consulting
The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook | Peter M. Senge • Art Kleiner • Charlotte Roberts • Bryan J. Smith
This content is being created and curated as part of a project exploring how changing the ways we think about thinking can revolutionize the ways we change the world. See the Emergent Cognition Project overview to learn more.