I never liked Spring cleaning. To me, it always represented a weekend of heavy chores and time away from relaxation and fun. But this year, cleaning feels necessary. As the pandemic forced many people indoors, we converted our living spaces to workspaces and stayed home more than ever before. Now, every surface is veneered with a thin layer of disinfectants, yet everything somehow still feels unclean. As the weather warms and we slowly return to our old patterns, it’s our old thoughts, assumptions, and beliefs that need to be scrubbed, shined, and swept out.

For most of the world, the spread of COVID-19 upended a lot of our beliefs about our inherent safety and protection, about our work patterns and ability to work remotely, and about what we could or would achieve with so much time spent inside our own homes. Those beliefs didn’t come from nowhere. We built them over time and we did that by climbing the Ladder of Inference.

The Ladder of Inference, developed by Harvard professor Chris Argyris, is a powerful visual metaphor for the way our mental processes lead us from thoughts to action.

  • Underneath the ladder is a pool of observable “data”. Data refers to anything that we could observe or what might be recorded by a video camera.
  • Our first step on the ladder is to select certain data, and in doing so, ignore other data.
  • We then assign meaning to the data we selected, and form assumptions about what that data means.
  • Then, we form conclusions, more concrete versions of our assumptions.
  • Based on those conclusions, we form beliefs.
  • Finally, we take action based on our beliefs.

This straightforward model may seem obvious, or even overly simplistic. Yet, the real power of the ladder of inference comes from understanding 1) what it means to move from one rung to another, and 2) how the ladder becomes a looping process rather than a strictly linear one. An example might help.

Let’s examine how Pam climbs the ladder of inference when her son Darryl comes home from school one day.

Observable data: Darryl swings open the front door, kicks off his shoes, and slams his backpack on the ground. Something falls out of the backpack. Darryl’s eyebrows raise. He quickly scoops up whatever fell out of it. He then moves to his bedroom and noisily shuffles around for a minute before coming back out without his backpack. He looks at Pam and says, “Hi mom. I’m home”

This whole scene likely plays out in only a minute or two, yet there is a lot happening here. This all represents the pool of observable data. If someone had been recording the scene, it would have picked up at least this much information.

Select data: Something fell out of Darryl’s backpack.

On any other day, Pam might have focused on the fact that her son didn’t say hello as soon as he walked in the door. But today, the thing that caught her attention is the thing that fell out of Darryl’s backpack. So, without even realizing it, she laser-focuses her attention to the backpack and subconsciously ignores other data.

Assign meaning: These things all are connected to whatever fell out of Darryl’s backpack: Darryl’s eyebrows raised. He went into his room for a minute. He made noise in his room. He came out without his backpack.

Within fractions of a second, Pam’s brain starts to make connections. Because she is immediately focused on whatever fell out of Darryl’s backpack, she subconsciously starts to give meaning to other things that she observed.

Assumption: Darryl didn’t want me to see whatever fell out of his backpack.

Now, Pam is starting to form a hypothesis about what’s really going on. She has made a mental leap from making observations to speculating about Darryl’s motivations.

Conclusion: Darryl is hiding something from me.

The transition from assumption to conclusion isn’t always an obvious one. Here, Pam goes from guessing about Darryl’s motivations to firmly deciding what Darryl’s actions mean.

Belief: Darryl is dishonest.

You can tell that Pam has climbed up another rung from conclusion to belief because she generalized her conclusion. Just one step ago Pam was making up her mind about Darryl’s motivations in this specific situation. But once she stepped up one more rung on the ladder, she started believing that Darryl is dishonest, not just in this situation, but all the time.

Did Darryl hide something in his room? Is there something he didn’t want his mother to see? We may never know, and it doesn’t matter because Pam has already made up her mind. According to Pam, her son Darryl is a liar, and that is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Using the Ladder of Inference, we followed the scene with Pam and Darryl to demonstrate how quickly our beliefs form, and how wrong our own beliefs might be. Yet, we act on those wrong beliefs all the time. We can continue to use the Ladder of Inference to also show what happens once we act based on faulty beliefs.

Action: Pam takes Darryl into his room and demands that he show her what he is hiding.

Pam’s beliefs are concrete, so when she takes Darryl to his room, she is confident she’ll uncover whatever he hid.

The real risk of climbing the ladder comes from two “loops” where one rung of the ladder influences how we approach another rung the next time we start to climb it. The first loop occurs once we take action. Our actions have an impact and can directly influence the world around us. Therefore, our actions influence what data we have available to observe.

Loop 1: Darryl denies he hid anything. He gets angry about being accused. Over the next few weeks, he becomes more careful, and takes extra caution to hide anything his mother might be suspicious of, even though he was never doing anything wrong to begin with.

Pam’s actions directly influenced Darryl’s behavior, both in the moment, and in the long term. Darryl is worried that his mother will accuse him of something else, so he does start to become more secretive, which might only reinforce his mother’s belief.

The second loop occurs when we select and ignore data according to our own beliefs.

Loop 2: Pam begins to be on the lookout for anything suspicious in Darryl’s behavior.

Fueled by her own possibly faulty belief, Pam filters out anything that might disconfirm her belief and instead she selects only the data that will reinforce what she already thinks is true.

The Ladder of Inference is an elegant explanation for the very messy journey through poorly selected data, inaccurate assumptions, faulty beliefs, and ill-conceived actions. Pam and Darryl might continue this way – hiding and accusing in cycles, and reinforcing each other’s beliefs about the other. Or they might walk themselves back down the ladder. They might find new data that disproves their beliefs, or they might form different assumptions that produce different results.

So, as you embark on your own Spring cleaning this year, whether you are cleaning out the gutters or getting rid of outdated beliefs, be careful on the ladder.

Rick Buccheri, Director of Programs