Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Ladder of Inference - Don't be too quick to jump to conclusions!

I came across this simple yet insightful TED-Ed video entitled "Rethinking Thinking" by Trevor Maber, and was introduced to the "ladder of inference", an idea developed by American business theoriest Chris Argyris, and subsequently thrust into the corporate world by Peter Senge via his book "The Fifth Disciple: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation".

The ladder is often used as a tool to help an individual understand how and why he/she thinks as he/she does about an issue. It can also help the individual understand why others think differently about an issue and empathise with their perspectives. The conscious use of the ladder of inference has been shown to be a valuable resource for understanding the source of differences in opinions. I identified many similarities between the research process and the steps involved in the ladder of inference, and one of the most important lessons which I learned while comparing both is - never be too quick to jump to conclusions! And one of the ways to avoid jumping to conclusions is to always be clear about the underlying assumptions and conclusions made.
The steps involved in the ladder of inference, adapted from:

Consultants advocate the use of the ladder to help leaders or management draw better conclusions, make better decisions, or challenge other people's conclusions based on the facts and information available. They also encourage the use of the ladder in analysing hard data, for example, a set of sales figures, the consumption habits of the general populace, or to test assertions. At the individual level, the ladder of inference can also be used to help validate or challenge other people's assertions or conclusions.

In research, although not many researchers or scholars have mentioned the use of the ladder in their thought processes, I have noticed many similarities between the steps expounded in the ladder of inference and how researchers go about doing research.

The first step of the ladder of inference is the data. There is a vast amount of data in the world, and each individual has a limited capacity to absorb them. Hence, the individual selects the data, and proceeds to add meaning to the data he/she has selected. Based on the meaning he/she has added, assumptions are made and conclusions are drawn, and action is taken based on the conclusions made. The cycle repeats when the results/consequences of the actions become data for another round of climbing the ladder. Over time, it is believed that the conclusions formed contribute to the foundation of the individual's beliefs, assumptions, and even values. They also play an influential role in filtering the data selected and adding meaning to the data when the process is repeated time and again.

In fact, I think the reason why the ladder of inference is highly applicable to researchers and their thought processes is because the logic behind the ladder is built on the assumptions about the human behaviour. In general, humans tend to:   
  • assume that others see the world as they do. Hence, if there are any disagreements, they are usually concentrated on the conclusions. The issue here is, humans assume that everyone selects the same data and adds the same meaning to the data. Reality is, none of us do.; 
  • take short-cuts around the ladder (e.g. jump to conclusions), and are unconscious of the steps they have climbed on the ladder; and
  • assume that any conclusions made are the "truth". But what is the truth? 
Similarly, in research, the data at the bottom of the ladder represents the pool of information that may be relevant to the researcher's research interests. Going up the ladder, the researcher then selects the relevant information from the pool of information available. The researcher proceeds to learn what the selected information describes about the phenomenon or issue he/she is studying, and from thereon, interpret and evaluate whatever he/she has noticed. Any assumptions or beliefs that the researcher holds greatly influence whatever he/she notices from the selected information. Following which, the researcher seeks to link the issue he/she is studying to the information he/she has selected, identifying any inconsistencies and consistencies between both, and finally, coming up with a theoretical framework on which the issue will be investigated. Having established a theoretical framework, the researcher then proceeds to investigate the issue and provide explanations and conclusions regarding his findings, and at the end of it, he/she will usually provide some limitations and recommendations for future research.

I found the following questions derived from the ladder of inference extremely useful when doing research:
  • What are the facts that I should be using?
    • Are the facts relevant?
    • Are there other facts I should have considered?
  • What data have I chosen to use and why?
    • Have I selected data rigorously?
  • Why have I chosen this course of action/approach?
    • Are there other actions/approaches which I should have considered?
  • What belief/assumption led to this particular action?
    • Were the beliefs/assumptions well-founded?
  • What am I assuming, and why?
    • Essentially, are my assumptions valid?
  • Why did I draw that conclusion?
    • Is the conclusion sound?
The temptation to skip various steps of the ladder and jump straight to making conclusions is something that the ladder of inference would like to remind people about (and prevent them from doing so). In order to address and overcome this temptation, the ladder of inference advocates and emphasises critical thinking in accepting the existence of perceptions, rather than simply trusting any data that one has encountered. The next time you do any form of research, it might be a good idea to go through your thinking process following the steps of the ladder of inference. Having done that, let me know if the ladder of inference did assist you in gaining further insights about your thought processes and how you go about doing research.


  1. I think what I did for most of my essays throughout my uni life was like jumping straight to conclusions. Well, it is a bit hard for me to really delve into the topic I'm examining with and dig out as much information as I can to form my opinions. Apparently, this should all be avoided by a serious researcher!

    Also find it quite common for people to look for what they actually want from a pool of data, which can add biases to the findings as well.

    1. Hi Chuxin,

      thanks for the comments once again!

      You are not entirely wrong in jumping straight to the conclusion first. In fact, Professor Kerry Jacobs gave us a shocking advice in class today - he told us to begin with the end in mind. He suggested that if we are lost at any point throughout the research, we should write a one page conclusion. Of course, the conclusion can be amended at any point in time, but being clear about the end goal actually facilitates research.

      In qualitative research, Professor Jacobs also suggested that we always write up the data and analysis section in tandem. Essentially, we should always mobilise our data to address the research gap.

      Feel free to respond to the points I've raised above!