Mind your step on the Ladder of Inference

How to stop jumping to conclusions

Scrumpy Dad
5 min readNov 25, 2021


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Do you get irritated when you hear people jumping to conclusions based on a single piece of information? Are you surprised how others come to a totally different conclusion than you based on the same situation? Let’s see what’s going on here, and how to deal with it.

We are all aware that jumping to conclusions is risky. When we go too fast in our thought process, we overlook relevant data that completes the picture. Incomplete data causes misunderstanding which leads to incorrect conclusions. Hence our decisions and actions will not be appropriate for the situation at hand. Actually, we often make things even worse resulting in frustration and conflict. This happens everywhere, at work as well as at home.

We can blame it on our brain. First of all the brain is very good at filtering data. If we had to process all incoming sensory data, our brain would overload. So it automatically filters out data it deems irrelevant. The brain is also very good at pattern matching, i.e. comparing certain inputs with previous experiences for easier decision making. From an evolutionary point of view, this is very helpful. It helps us to detect danger in a split second, so we stand a better chance of survival.

Luckily for most of us, life is no longer a basic struggle for survival. But our lives are also not that simple anymore. The world around us has become complex. The amount of information to process is overwhelming, new technology is rapidly transforming society, and global challenges are knocking on our door. It’s a tough world to navigate, so even more reason not to jump to hasty conclusions.

A mental model

Let me introduce you to the Ladder of Inference, a mental model introduced by Chris Argyris and later covered in Peter Senge’s bestseller The Fifth Discipline. Unaware we climb this Ladder of Inference many times per day, each time we interpret a situation.

As logical as this thought process of the Ladder of Inference may look, there are two serious pitfalls to watch out for:

  1. Our beliefs have a big impact on how we see the world and which data is filtered. Without realizing it, we see the world as we believe it to be, not how it actually is. Typically we miss out on information that doesn’t match our current beliefs.
  2. Because we have taken some action, we focus to find proof we did the right thing. With this narrow view, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. All kinds of cognitive biases come into play here.

Let me illustrate how this works with a personal example. Some time ago my wife was very busy preparing dinner so I offered to help. She asked me to take care of grilling the vegetables. After all the washing and cutting, I asked her which program of the oven she normally uses. I observed how she frowned and stayed quiet, which I interpreted as irritation. I assumed she thought I should know this and concluded she must regret accepting my help. This made sense to me because I know she loves working on her own. So I got frustrated, turned around, chose some random program, and avoided further communication. Now this behavior díd irritate her. Retroactively I had managed to create my own observed reality.

All this happened in less than 3 seconds, that’s how quick it goes! Of course, there were alternatives in my example. Maybe my wife just didn’t get my question (I can mumble quite a bit), or maybe she was trying to remember and I was just impatient. There are always other options for interpretation. We did have a nice dinner btw, not to worry.

Climbing carefully

So what can we do about these pitfalls? It all starts with awareness of how the Ladder of Inference works. Awareness helps us to move up on the Ladder more consciously without racing to the top. Ask yourself these questions at the various steps:

  • did I include all relevant data?
  • which other interpretations are possible?
  • how reliable is this assumption? What other assumptions may hold true?
  • is this a fair conclusion? Are other conclusions possible too?
  • Is this belief still serving me?
  • What other actions could make sense?

The Ladder of Inference also comes into play in the communication between people. Our thinking process works so fast that we hardly realize how we’re racing up our own ladder. Because it feels so natural, we find it hard to accept that other people may have come to different conclusions. And of course, we assume we make the same observations because the facts are out there, right? Wrong!

Acknowledge that your conclusions are based on inferences, they are not facts. When you find yourself in a misunderstanding or a conflict with another person, it helps to make each other’s thinking explicit. When you disagree on actions or conclusions, walking down the ladder together might bring you closer to a shared understanding of the situation at hand:

  • How did we arrive at our different conclusions? Which steps did we take in our thinking?
  • What assumptions did each of us make?
  • Which interpretations did each of us make?
  • Which data did each of us use?

Take care to discuss these questions in an open and constructive dialogue. Or, as Stephen Covey puts it: seek to understand, then to be understood.

Jumping to conclusions is a common thing to do. We do it multiple times per day in a split second. It’s also very hard to avoid. But once you are aware of the process, you can use it to your advantage. Walk the Ladder of Inference carefully and watch each step as you go. It will benefit you and the people you interact with. Good luck!



Scrumpy Dad

Scrum Master & Agile Coach, passionate about personal development, applying work practices at home to build a happy family life.