A quick (partly personal) history: The Ladder of Inference was developed by Chris Argyris and presented in his book Overcoming Organizational Defenses in 1990. It has been adapted and adopted for various purposes by many different people and groups. I was introduced to it in a dialogue workshop close to 15 years ago.
The reason the Ladder exists: What Argyris wanted to do was make visible the steps that happen in our head in the process of inference, as we reach a conclusion. He wanted to make these steps visible because they usually happen automatically and without our awareness. Because we are not naturally aware of the steps we have no control over them. We can’t communicate our thought processes to others; we can’t examine them to see if they are coherent; we can’t change them when they are no longer helpful. Becoming aware of one’s own inference processes is considered indispensable for learning to do things differently as well as for organizational learning.
The version of the Ladder of Inference that I most commonly use is a fairly simply one and related to Argyris’s original. It looks like this:
The Pool of Data is all the objective evidence or facts available on the topic. Some people describe this as what might be captured by a video camera. Everyone has access to all of this.
In the Data Selection step I draw on experiences or knowledge I have in connection with the given topic.
In the Added Meanings step the I interpret the data I have selected and “react” (often emotionally) to the examples or experiences I have had.
The Conclusion step represents my worldview or deeper underlying assumptions. It expresses how I think the world should be. It is often a very general point and can be somewhat philosophical (as you will see below).
The Action step is the one step that is always visible. The steps that I have gone through in the automatic, unaware process of inference lead me to certain almost inevitable ways of behaving.
An example of this might be as follows:
Say my conclusion is that people should stand on their own two feet and not expect support from others.
Data I might (unconsciously) be selecting from the Pool that start me on the way to this conclusion: Success stories of people who have pulled themselves up by their boot straps and felt stronger and better for it, psychological or philosophical theories that suggest that people do better if they achieve things on their own (the [in]famous “Research shows …”), my personal experience of standing on my own two feet, etc.
Meanings and interpretations I might automatically add to these stories and theories I have selected: It is natural for human beings to rise to challenges and it helps them develop and come into their own. Providing support interferes with this development process and makes them dependent (an undesirable state in my worldview) for life.
Natural, congruent actions flowing from this particular Ladder of Inference might be: Voting for small-government parties, supporting charities that explicitly require the recipients to contribute to their own advancement, or exhorting people to “pull their socks up and get on with it.”
If I choose different data or meanings, my conclusion and actions are almost certainly going to be different, too.
Not clear? Don’t worry. I suspect I’ll be posting on this topic and the related model, Inquiry, fairly often.