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Ladder of Inference

The “ladder of inference” concept explains why most people don’t usually remember where their deepest attitudes came from. The data is long since lost to memory, after years of inferential leaps. Being aware of the ladder of inference enables people to improve their communications and thinking by (1) becoming more aware of your own thinking and reasoning (reflection); making your thinking and reasoning more visible to others (advocacy); and inquiring into others’ thinking and reasoning (inquiry).

The following “Ladder of Inference” was 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.

Ladder of Inference Model


From the 5th Discipline Fieldbook, Peter Senge, 1994.

You can look over some examples of the Ladder of Inference at at www.solonline.org/pra//tool/ladder-ex.html.

Most of this text was found on Gene Bellinger’s website in 2004, www.systems-thinking.org/loi/loi.htm.

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