Ladder of Inference by Gene Bellinger

Short Circuiting Reality

The following "Ladder of Inference" was, I believe, initially developed by Chris Argyris, and subsequently presented in Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.

What the diagram implies is that we begin with Real Data & Experience, the kind that would be captured by a movie camera that didn't lie. We then choose a set of Selected Data & Experience that we pay attention to. To this Selected Data & Experience we Affix Meaning, develop Assumptions, come to Conclusions, and finally develop Beliefs. Beliefs then form the basis of our Actions which create additional Real Data & Experience

The circular nature of this description becomes evident when the diagram is redrawn with an added influence.

This diagram indicates the reinforcing nature of this structure, as each action builds on the one before it. Yet there is an apparent difficulty with this structure.

It is our Beliefs which influence the Selected Data & Experience we pay attention to.

This diagram indicates that as our Beliefs influence the Selected Data & Experience we pay attention to they essentially establish an internal reinforcing loop which short circuits reality. The tendency is to select data to pay attention to which supports our beliefs. And, I would expect, as our Beliefs become more and more rigid the Selected Data & Experience we are willing to pay attention to will become a smaller and smaller portion of reality.

The relevant question seems to relate to how do we stop short circuiting reality and begin to see reality for what it really is.

My experience has lead me to understand that although there are many similarities in the way we each view Real Data & Experience there are subtle differences in the ladders of inference we traverse. I have found that by developing an understanding of the rungs on others ladders of inference the alternative perspectives provide a basis for uncovering inconsistencies between the Real Data & Experience and Selected Data & Experience resulting from my beliefs. An earnest endeavor to seek truth and understanding seems most beneficial.


archive posted on 1 Jan 2004

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