Inferences - Meanings We Create
We experience things all the time. From those experiences we make inferences. They are the meanings that we attach to experiences. It is often said that we create these meanings; that we experience something, perhaps apply some logic, and then decide what it means to us.
Let’s look a little more closely
How many times have you known people to draw conclusions about something that you know to be wrong, that is, inconsistent with your application of your logic to the situation, and the conclusion that you have drawn?
Our conclusions don’t need to be correct to have meaning for us. Remember, we have applied our logic to our data or experience in order to arrive at our conclusion. We have determined what things mean.
Objective reality is often irrelevant to our conclusions. It doesn't mean that the objective world around us is not important - only that we are often satisfied with conclusions that are not consistent with all the facts at hand.
The Ladder of Inference
Chris Argyris, professor Emeritus at the Harvard Business School, proposed the Ladder of inference, a series of steps leading from our experiences to our actions. We move up the ladder beginning with some date or an experience. We select a portion of that experience and assign some meaning to it. We then draw a conclusion and come to believe something as a result. Finally, we take action on that belief, which creates new date or a new experience, and the process begins again.
This process seems straightforward enough until we look more closely. Our beliefs cannot only influence our actions; they can cycle back to influence new data and experiences. We become selective about what we see, hear, or otherwise perceive.
It might help to view this series of steps as a cycle (see below). It seems straightforward enough until we look more closely. Our beliefs have the potential to not only influence our actions; they can influence the data and experiences that we select, the meanings we attach to them, the assumptions we make and the conclusions we draw, and, finally, effect those same beliefs that set it all into motion.
You can see that arrows project from Beliefs to all of the other elements in the cycle. Chances are that more than one, if not all, of these projections is happening at the same time. It begins to function, as many life systems do, as a nonlinear system where you cannot simply move from point to point as one leads to the next. Rather, it gets all messy as many things happen at once. It quickly outstrips our feeble mental capacities to keep track of everything.
This cycle of inference can be very powerful. We often find ourselves stuck because we are not conscious, or mindful, of what is happening in our lives.
In organizations, it is common to hear questions about "the data" or the assumptions we are making etc. But, those generally come up during planning sessions dealing with change or budgets etc. Questions about, or awareness of, the underpinnings of our thinking are not generally part of our daily lives at work or at home.
Consider how your life might change if you were to become aware of the cycle of inference in your life on a more moment-to-moment basis. Imagine that you are in line at your favorite coffee house. You plan to buy a latte and a low fat fruit and nut scone. You stop to ask yourself, "Why? Why are you buying those items?"
- You might answer that you are hungry. Why not something more wholesome?
- You might say that you didn't have time this morning. Why not? Is 'not having time' a pattern in your life?
- You might answer that you like lattes and scones. What makes them special to you?
- You might answer that they are somehow good for you. Is there evidence for that, or is it an excuse?
- You might say that you deserve a little pampering this morning. Poor baby, what happened that would justify eating an unbalanced breakfast that probably isn't that good for you?
Regardless of the first answer that comes to mind, question that answer. You might ask, "Why is that important," and an answer comes to mind. Then you ask, "Why is THAT important?" You keep digging until you reach a point where you believe you are at the bottom of it. At least it will be the bottom of it for now.
Keep in mind that this is a model. It is there to help you think about how you go about your life.