Imagine walking down a busy street. You see someone seated on a park bench, their clothing showing signs of wear and tear. They are quietly talking to themselves, appearing lost in thought. How often do we jump to conclusions based on these limited observations?

We might wonder if they are struggling with mental health challenges or facing financial difficulties. Perhaps we even speculate about their individual choices, potentially assigning blame or judgement. While snap judgments can be tempting, the reality is often more complex and nuanced. People experiencing homelessness come from diverse backgrounds and face a variety of challenges, including mental health conditions, job loss, illness, domestic violence, military service with PTSD, or even financial hardship as a student.

There is no such thing as a fact; only interpretations. – Friedrich Nietzsche

 Inference is a natural part of human cognition, but it’s crucial to be aware of its limitations and potential for misinterpretations. This understanding can empower you to make better decisions and improve your overall well-being.  By delving into the psychology behind how our brain associates data, we’ll explore how biases and limited information can influence our judgments. We’ll also discuss tools and strategies you can use to question your assumptions and become more mindful and conscious of your judgments. You’ll learn to become more mindful and conscious of your judgments, ultimately fostering clearer thinking and improved decision-making at work and in your personal life.

The Ladder of Inference: Climbing the Steps to Conclusions

Our brains are remarkable pattern-matching machines, constantly processing information from the world around us and making sense of it, influenced by our preexisting knowledge, expectations, and biases. To make it easier for us to organise and shape our perceptions, we also tend to create oversimplified generalisations about entire groups of people, things, places and animals. While stereotypes can sometimes hold a grain of truth, they can also be inaccurate and harmful, leading to prejudice and discrimination. How can we get better at understanding the data much more efficiently and avoid stereotypical categorisation? What does it mean in a professional setting? 

Here’s one such model developed by organisational psychologist Chris Argyris that outlines the steps we take as we interpret information and draw conclusions:

  • Data: This encompasses the raw facts and observations gathered through our professional interactions.
  • Selected Data: We often filter the information based on our experiences, past evaluations, and existing biases. This selective process can lead to an incomplete picture of the situation.
  • Interpretation: Based on the selected data, we assign meaning to the information within the context. This interpretation is subjective and shaped by individual perspectives and expectations.
  • Assumptions: Without realising it, we make assumptions to fill in gaps in our understanding. These assumptions can be influenced by stereotypes, past experiences with similar situations, or personal biases.
  • Conclusions: Combining the selected data, interpretation, and assumptions, we draw conclusions about the situation. These conclusions are often presented as definitive statements despite their inherent subjectivity.
  • Beliefs: These conclusions solidify, shaping our worldview (e.g., all homeless people are drug addicts and have made wrong decisions throughout their lives).
  • Actions: Ultimately, our beliefs guide our actions. This can lead to positive, negative, or neutral outcomes depending on the accuracy of our conclusions.

Practical scenario:

Here’s an example of how this plays out sometimes in a professional setting:

  • Data: During a performance review meeting, a manager observes that a team member has missed deadlines on two recent projects.
  • Selected Data:  The manager might focus solely on missed deadlines, neglecting the team member’s positive contributions in other areas or potential extenuating circumstances.
  • Interpretation: The manager interprets the missed deadlines as a lack of effort or competence on the team member’s part, attributing them to poor work ethic or inadequate skills.
  • Assumptions: The manager might assume the team member is not a good fit for the role or is deliberately underperforming, overlooking potential personal struggles or project-specific challenges.
  • Conclusions: The manager concludes that the team member is not performing at the expected level and may require disciplinary action.
  • Beliefs: The manager may develop a belief that this team member is unreliable, potentially impacting future opportunities or assignments for the individual.
  • Actions: Based on the negative conclusion, the manager might decide to assign the team member less challenging tasks, provide them with a performance improvement plan, or even consider termination, potentially hindering the team member’s growth and development while neglecting possible underlying issues.

Now, by thoroughly investigating the situation and maintaining objectivity while evaluating the information, the manager could have gained a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the missed deadlines. This improved perspective could have led to more constructive solutions and positive outcomes.

You see where I am going right?

The explosion of information sharing, especially through social media, has created a breeding ground for the rapid spread of incomplete or misleading information. Sources of public information can play a role in this by carefully selecting data that aligns with their own biases and ideologies.

This selective presentation often leads to interpretations and inferences that are highly controversial and divisive. Some historic examples like Autism and vaccine controversy, MSG controversy and Manuka honey misinformation. This is just the tip of the iceberg, but countless examples show how people quickly climbed the wrong ladder and ended up with wrong inferences causing a lot of damage. 

So, understanding the common biases people face is vital to becoming more critical of the information in today’s digital age. Here are some common biases that accelerate the rate at which people usually climb the ladder:

  1. Confirmation Bias: We tend to seek out or interpret information that confirms our existing beliefs and ignore evidence that contradicts them. This can lead to biased interpretations and inaccurate conclusions.
  2. Availability bias: We judge the likelihood of events based on how easily we can recall similar situations. This can lead to misinterpretations of data, especially when dealing with rare events.
  3. Anchoring bias: We rely too heavily on the first piece of information we encounter, making it difficult to adjust our judgments as we receive more information. This can be problematic when making decisions based on initial impressions.

Climbing the Ladder Mindfully: Actionable Takeaways

  • Embrace double-loop learning:
    Earlier, we discussed the example of a manager who mistakenly infers that an employee’s missed deadlines indicate poor performance. In single-loop learning, the manager corrects their initial action by offering a raise or assigning new projects. This addresses the immediate issue but doesn’t necessarily challenge underlying assumptions.

    Double-loop learning delves deeper. It prompts us to question the very foundations of our beliefs and mental models. These mental models, shaped by our experiences, values, and assumptions, are the frameworks we use to interpret the world. In this case, the manager might explore how they arrived at their initial judgment about the employee’s performance. Did they consider factors beyond deadlines, such as workload or resource constraints? By reflecting on these underlying assumptions, the manager can improve their decision-making in the future and not repeat the same mistake with other employees.

    Action: When faced with a situation that seems contradictory to your initial understanding, ask yourself: “What assumptions am I making here?” “Could there be another way of looking at this?”. Make sure you seek out diverse perspectives and reflect on how they might challenge or refine your existing mental models.

  • Leverage the Power of “5 Whys”
    The “5 Whys” technique is a simple yet powerful problem-solving tool originally developed by Toyota. It works by asking “why” five times (or even more!) in succession. This repetitive questioning helps us drill down to the root cause of an issue or, in the context of the Ladder of Inference, the underlying assumptions influencing our interpretations.
    For instance, imagine you see a news headline that confirms your existing beliefs.  By applying the “5 Whys,” you might ask:

    • Why does this news story resonate with me?
    • Why do I believe this information to be true?
    • Why did I make that assumption?
    • What evidence supports that assumption?
    • Are there other sources that might offer a different perspective?

    By systematically questioning each layer of your reasoning, you can uncover any hidden biases that might be shaping your initial conclusions.

    Action: The next time you find yourself drawing a quick conclusion or trying to find data that suits a stereotype, challenge yourself with “Why do I think that?” Follow up with “Why is that important?” and continue asking why until you reach a more fundamental understanding. This can be done mentally or even jotted down on paper to visualise your thought process.

  • Cultivate a Questioning Mindset
    Critical thinking hinges on a questioning mindset. This means approaching information with a healthy dose of scepticism,  regardless of whether it aligns with your existing beliefs or not.  By actively questioning the information you encounter, you can avoid falling prey to confirmation bias and ensure you have a well-rounded understanding of the issue at hand.

    Action: Make it a habit to ask yourself questions like: “What evidence supports this claim?” “Who is the source of this information?”  “Are there alternative perspectives I haven’t considered?”  Don’t be afraid to delve deeper and seek out additional information from credible sources.

“First we make our habits, then our habits make us.”  – Charles C. Nobel

Just like any other skill, mindful information consumption requires practice. To make critical thinking more automatic,  deliberately expose yourself to diverse viewpoints.  Set aside dedicated time to read articles, listen to podcasts, or watch documentaries that cover complex issues from different angles.  Seek out credible sources like reputable organisations, academic journals, and established news outlets known for fact-checking. 

Don’t get stuck in echo chambers!  Actively vary your newsfeed and social media to encounter contrasting perspectives.  Most importantly, engage in civil discussions with people who hold different views. Actively listen and genuinely try to understand their arguments, even if you disagree. 

Become an active participant in shaping your beliefs. By incorporating double-loop learning and the five whys technique, you’ll ascend the Ladder of Inference with greater awareness. This fosters a more objective and informed approach to navigating the world around you. Regularly update your mental models based on new information and feedback.  Reflect on your actions and offer support to colleagues who might be climbing the wrong ladders of inference.

A good starting point for any critical thinker is to question everything, even what they read. Did anything in this blog make you pause and reconsider? Did I provide enough evidence to support my claims, or were there leaps of inference? 

Let’s keep the conversation flowing! By questioning information, applying the Ladder of Inference, and sharing our experiences, we can all become more responsible consumers of information in our ever-connected world and better colleagues in the workplace.

Have got a favorite source (website, podcast, etc.) that excels at presenting balanced information and diverse viewpoints?  Share it in the comments on our Linkedin or Insta posts to help others build their critical thinking muscles!

Hope you derived some value from reading this article.

Until next time!

Peace out.