This topic considers the processes by which we arrive at conclusions and decide upon actions. Using a model called “The Ladder of Inference” it highlights that such processes are built on the things we believe about the world. This is an area where self-awareness is crucial because where these beliefs are in error then our conclusions and actions can be built on poor foundations. Such self-awareness helps us monitor ourselves and assess the beliefs and assumptions that underpin our reactions and actions with regard to the people whom we lead.
Insight into Thinking Processes – The Ladder of Inference
The Ladder of inference was proposed around 1990 by Dr Chris Argyris, a professor at the Harvard Business School. It provides a fascinating insight into our thought processes, specifically the relationship between our beliefs and our actions. In this case beliefs refer to all those things we believe about how the world works, not specifically our religious belief system. An example: I believe that the white granular powder kept in the sugar bowl won’t harm me or make me high but will sweeten my coffee and I use it accordingly. I tend not examine it every time to check if the powder is salt or something else. I believe that the sugar bowl contains sugar and this belief steers my behaviour. Whilst this is trivial it illustrates the point.
The Ladder of Inference also explains why different people involved in the same, single situation will respond differently. We each have a different experience and our beliefs about the world are frequently different in some way. As such the Ladder of Inference provides insight; it helps our self-awareness and empathetic awareness of others. Let’s work through it, one step at time.
This is the impartial reality that we observe. The classical way of emphasising this is to imagine a video camera capturing events. It records the raw data with no filtering or interpretation and it’s the same for all observers of the event.
This is the first processing step we perform and it’s based on our beliefs about the world, how it works, what is of value and so on. Based on our beliefs we interpret the facts by giving them meaning and we make theories about their significance and on the basis of that significance we choose to work with some data and ignore the rest. We also build stories from the selected and interpreted facts as we string them together into something that begins to make sense.
Our minds are designed to create and match patterns and so we match the selected data to existing patterns and only where that fails we create new ones. Our minds can be considered lazy in this respect: we will force fit new situations to the nearest old patterns rather than make new patterns. This is to do with how our brains physically function and gives rise to all sorts of obvious limitations and disadvantages. Often we are quite unaware of the way our beliefs about the world affect our response.
Two different people will have a different set of beliefs about the world. To a large measure they may be the same, but we each have trodden an individual path through life and so have our own, individual patterns of thinking. Thus there will be differences and sometimes they are significant. Therefore, two people may well give the same facts about the same situation quite different meaning and significance. So it’s no surprise that the explanations they develop can be quite different.
The stories we develop to provide context and explanation of the selected facts will be incomplete. So we now fill the holes with assumptions based on our view of the world or, where that is lacking, we may deduce the assumptions to fit our view of the facts.
We will also identify issues and problems and deduce solutions.
It’s worth noting that at this point we are devising and assuming pseudo-facts to fill in the gaps. However these are seldom tested so who knows if they are true!
Even assuming that two people had the same interpretation of the event after the Selection step, here they will almost certainly make different assumptions. So we can see how divergent viewpoints and opinions arise.
We now reach the point where we draw our conclusions and from the options and possibilities identified in the previous step we choose our course of action. Again it is worth noting that our choice of action is heavily dependent upon our worldview and beliefs and the untested assumptions that we have made.
As we have noted, there are two key points where we introduce our inferences and assumptions in order to complete the picture and be able to act. But those things that we introduce are untested.
- They may have been proven true for a different situation but are they true for this one?
- Are they even a good approximation?
Thus we arrive at a place of conclusions and decisions that may be built upon unsound foundations.
We now arrive at what has been called the “Reflexive Loop”. We have processed a situation based on our current beliefs; we have interpreted it, filled in the gaps and drawn conclusions. A product of this process is that we have modified our model of the world. Dependent upon the specifics, our inferences may have strengthened or weakened our views, or created new connections and thus new beliefs. In any case these now enter our store of experience and attitude, and will affect us the next time we climb the Ladder of Inference.
We now act based upon our conclusions and decisions, and in so doing we create a new set of Observable Data and away we go again.
Let’s just step through a made up example to illustrate the Ladder of Inference at work.
In the UK soccer Premier League there is a myth, that for whatever reason, the referees favour the “Big” clubs, especially when they play at home. So when they make decisions that affect the play it is believed that they are likely to make bad decisions as far as the smaller, visiting soccer clubs are concerned.
A “smaller” visiting team is playing a “BIG” team and is 1 goal to nil down. In the flow of play a visiting player, racing towards the home side’s goal, is brought down by a star defender’s tackle some 2 or 3 metres outside the Penalty Box, and a goal scoring opportunity lost. The defender is not penalised and play continues. Note: Post-match analysis on TV, examining the incident from several angles agrees with the referee’s decision.
Cuthbert, a visiting mid-field player sees the tackle. He didn’t get a good view of what happened but, because of the Myth, he believes that the referee was in error and a free kick should have been given. The kick would have been so close to the goal surely they must have scored and equalised.
He saw his team mate go down hard and roll around in pain, “It must have been a viscous tackle” he thinks. (He forgot that as soon as the referee had made his decision that his colleague got up and moved without pain). “It’s the referee favouring the ‘big boys’ again.” “They never decide in our favour.”
He also assumes that the referee must be afraid of the home side manager, “He can be really tough when he wants to be. The Ref would never be able to stand up against him…”
He observes to himself: “If the referee won’t penalise the defender then I will have to do it.”
Cuthbert concludes that:
- His team mate was fouled in a dangerous tackle so the defender must be a ‘nasty piece of work’.
- The Referee is afraid of the manager of the home team and will always find in their favour.
- If no one else will, he will have to bring about justice as best he can.
Cuthbert’s opinion of the defender is forever altered and he considers him to be a ‘dirty player’.
He believes that the Referee is untrustworthy and lacks integrity.
He confirms that the Myth is true, the referees will always find against the “smaller team”, no wonder they are at the bottom of the league. It’s not to do with them, everyone is against them.
In future, Cuthbert always argues with this particular referee and when people say how good a player that defender is he always makes offensive and derogatory remarks.
In the course of play Cuthbert has opportunity to come near the defender: “He has the ball! Wait for it”. “Got him! He won’t get up from that one for a while.” “ Red Card! Why are you Red Carding me Ref? If you had done your job properly in the first place……”
If you take time to think back to your response to old situations and monitor new ones, you will see this process at work. When you reach differing conclusions to other people you will begin to understand why. As a Christian, you will certainly discover things that you need to work through before God.
The Spiritual Dimension
The Ladder of Inference is a good model but it is devised from a secular perspective and therefore excludes mention of spiritual influences. However, the model is sufficiently good to allow this to fit.
The Bible teaches quite plainly that the fallen nature of natural man has a preference for sin and an enmity towards God. Thus man’s sinful nature casts a shadow on our interpretation of the world, and therefore distorts our worldview and beliefs that play so strongly in the processes the model describes.
The Bible also clearly teaches that the devil is at work seeking to deceive the world (Revelation 12:9). In this he will also seek to have us modify our beliefs and worldview and persuade us of wrong interpretations and assumptions.
God declared that his Creation, which included man, was “Exceptionally Good” but as a result of the Fall our natures became corrupted. When we consider the Ladder of Inference we need also to account for that corruption in our thought processes; how they may no longer operate as God intended. Thus crucial steps in the ladder will likely exhibit a bias away from godliness.
For the Christian, we also have the internal work of the indwelling Holy Spirit who works to bring about increasing degrees of Christ-likeness. This works out in our characters, which in many ways are the expression of how we think.
- Take a Moment:
- Identify three ways in which the Ladder of Inference model can help you be more self-aware?
- In this light, what strategies would help you make more appropriate responses?
- How could these help you as a Christ-centred leader?
- Take A Moment: Prayerfully consider what beliefs you have about other people, especially those that you lead?
(Remember here that ‘beliefs” are the very broad beliefs we have about how the world functions. They are not simply limited to religious beliefs but equally we cannot exclude what God tells us about the world)
- How do your beliefs affect your response to these people?
- Which beliefs are tested and proven and which are based upon assumption and inference?
- What should you do with those beliefs that are based on assumption and inference?