Don't just "dive in" and make a decision right away.
Have you ever been accused of "putting 2 and 2 together and making 5," meaning that the other person thinks you have jumped to the wrong conclusion?
In today's fast-moving world, we are always under pressure to act now, rather than spend time reasoning things through and thinking about the true facts.
Not only can this lead us to a wrong conclusion, but it can also cause conflict with other people, who may have drawn quite different conclusions on the same matter.
In a fast business environment, you need to make sure your actions and decisions are founded on reality. Likewise, when you accept or challenge other people's conclusions, you need be confident that their reasoning, and yours, is firmly based on the true facts. The "Ladder of Inference" helps you achieve this.
Sometimes known as the "Process of Abstraction," this tool helps you understand the thinking steps that can lead you to jump to wrong conclusions, and so helps you get back to hard reality and facts.
Find out more in this article and infographic.
The Ladder of Inference was first put forward by organizational psychologist Chris Argyris and used by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization.
Understanding the Theory
The Ladder of Inference describes the thinking process that we go through, usually without realizing it, to get from a fact to a decision or action. The thinking stages can be seen as rungs on a ladder and are shown in Figure 1.
Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have reality and facts. From there, we:
- Experience these selectively based on our beliefs and prior experience.
- Interpret what they mean.
- Apply our existing assumptions, sometimes without considering them.
- Draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions.
- Develop beliefs based on these conclusions.
- Take actions that seem "right" because they are based on what we believe.
This can create a vicious circle. Our beliefs have a big effect on how we select from reality, and can lead us to ignore the true facts altogether. Soon we are literally jumping to conclusions – by missing facts and skipping steps in the reasoning process.
By using the Ladder of Inference, you can learn to get back to the facts and use your beliefs and experiences to positive effect, rather than allowing them to narrow your field of judgment. Following this step-by-step reasoning can lead you to better results, based on reality, so avoiding unnecessary mistakes and conflict.
How to Use the Theory
The Ladder of Inference helps you draw better conclusions, or challenge other people's conclusions based on true facts and reality. It can be used to help you analyze hard data, such as a set of sales figures, or to test assertions, such as "the project will go live in April". You can also use it to help validate or challenge other people's conclusions.
The step-by-step reasoning process helps you remain objective and, when working or challenging others, reach a shared conclusion without conflict.
Use the Ladder of Inference at any of stage of your thinking process. If you're asking any of the following questions, the model may prove a useful aid:
- Is this the "right" conclusion?
- Why am I making these assumptions?
- Why do I think this is the "right" thing to do?
- Is this really based on all the facts?
- Why does he believe that?
Use the following steps to challenge thinking using the Ladder of Inference:
- Stop! It's time to consider your reasoning.
- Identify where on the ladder you are. Are you:
- Selecting your data or reality?
- Interpreting what it means?
- Making or testing assumptions?
- Forming or testing conclusions?
- Deciding what to do and why?
From your current "rung," analyze your reasoning by working back down the ladder. This will help you trace the facts and reality that you are actually working with.
At each stage, ask yourself WHAT you are thinking and WHY. As you analyze each step, you may need to adjust your reasoning. For example you may need to change some assumption or extend the field of data you have selected.
The following questions help you work backwards (coming down the ladder, starting at the top):
- Why have I chosen this course of action? Are there other actions I should have considered?
- What belief lead to that action? Was it well-founded?
- Why did I draw that conclusion? Is the conclusion sound?
- What am I assuming, and why? Are my assumptions valid?
- What data have I chosen to use and why? Have I selected data rigorously?
- What are the real facts that I should be using? Are there other facts I should consider?
When you are working through your reasoning, look out for rungs that you tend to jump. Do you tend to make assumptions too easily? Do you tend to select only part of the data? Note you tendencies so that you can learn to do that stage of reasoning with extra care in the future.
- With a new sense of reasoning (and perhaps a wider field of data and more considered assumptions), you can now work forwards again – step-by-step – up the rungs of the ladder.
Try explaining your reasoning to a colleague or friend. This will help you check that your argument is sound.
If you are challenging someone else's conclusions, it is especially important to be able to explain your reasoning so that you can explain it to that person in a way that helps you reach a shared conclusion and avoid conflict.
The regional Sales Manager has just read the latest sales figures. Sales in Don's territory are down – again. It's simply not good enough. He needs to be fired!
Most people would agree that the Sales Manager may have just jumped to a rash conclusion. So let's see how the scenario plays using the Ladder of Inference:
The latest month's sales figures (reality) have come in, and the Sales Manager immediately focuses on Don's territory (selected reality). Sales are down on the previous months again (interpreted reality). The Sales Manager assumes that the drop in sales is entirely to do with the Don's performance (assumption), and decides that Don hasn't been performing well (conclusion). So he forms the opinion that Don isn't up to the job (belief). He feels that firing Don is the best options (action).
Now let's challenge the Sales Manager's thinking using the Ladder of Inference:
The Sales Manager came to the sales figures with an existing belief that Don, a new salesmen, couldn't possibly be as good as the "old-timers" who he has trained for years. He focused on Don's territory because Don is the newest salesman, and selected facts that supported what he already believed (that Don wouldn't be doing a good job).
To get back to facts and reality, we must challenge the Sales Manager's selection of data and his assumptions about Don's likely performance.
Although the figures are down in Don's territory, they have actually dipped less than in other areas. Don is actually a great salesman, but he and his colleagues have in fact been let down by new products being delayed, and by old products running out of stock.
Once the Sales Manager changes his assumptions, he will see the need to focus on solving the production issues. He can also learn from Don – how is it that Don has performed better than other sales people in the face of stock problems? Can others learn from him?
Click on the image below to see The Ladder of Inference represented in an infographic:
Figure 1: The Ladder of Inference
From Argyris, C., 'Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning,' 1st Edition, © 1990. Printed electronically and reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. and Sons, Inc.
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The Critical Thinking Co.™
"Critical thinking is the identification and evaluation of evidence to guide decision making. A critical thinker uses broad in-depth analysis of evidence to make decisions and communicate his/her beliefs clearly and accurately."
Other Definitions of Critical Thinking:
Robert H. Ennis, Author of The Cornell Critical Thinking Tests
"Critical thinking is reasonable, reflective thinking that is focused on deciding what to believe and do."
A SUPER-STREAMLINED CONCEPTION OF CRITICAL THINKING
Robert H. Ennis, 6/20/02
Assuming that critical thinking is reasonable reflective thinking focused on deciding what to believe or do, a critical thinker:
1. Is open-minded and mindful of alternatives
2. Tries to be well-informed
3. Judges well the credibility of sources
4. Identifies conclusions, reasons, and assumptions
5. Judges well the quality of an argument, including the acceptability of its reasons, assumptions, and evidence
6. Can well develop and defend a reasonable position
7. Asks appropriate clarifying questions
8. Formulates plausible hypotheses; plans experiments well
9. Defines terms in a way appropriate for the context
10. Draws conclusions when warranted, but with caution
11. Integrates all items in this list when deciding what to believe or do
Critical Thinkers are disposed to:
1. Care that their beliefs be true, and that their decisions be justified; that is, care to "get it right" to the extent possible. This includes the dispositions to
a. Seek alternative hypotheses, explanations, conclusions, plans, sources, etc., and be open to them
b. Endorse a position to the extent that, but only to the extent that, it is justified by the information that is available
c. Be well informed
d. Consider seriously other points of view than their own
2. Care to present a position honestly and clearly, theirs as well as others'. This includes the dispositions to
a. Be clear about the intended meaning of what is said, written, or otherwise communicated, seeking as much precision as the situation requires
b. Determine, and maintain focus on, the conclusion or question
c. Seek and offer reasons
d. Take into account the total situation
e. Be reflectively aware of their own basic beliefs
3. Care about the dignity and worth of every person (a correlative disposition). This includes the dispositions to
a. Discover and listen to others' view and reasons
b. Avoid intimidating or confusing others with their critical thinking prowess, taking into account others' feelings and level of understanding
c. Be concerned about others' welfare
Critical Thinking Abilities:
Ideal critical thinkers have the ability to
(The first three items involve elementary clarification.)
1. Focus on a question
a. Identify or formulate a question
b. Identify or formulate criteria for judging possible answers
c. Keep the situation in mind
2. Analyze arguments
a. Identify conclusions
b. Identify stated reasons
c. Identify unstated reasons
d. Identify and handle irrelevance
e. See the structure of an argument
3. Ask and answer questions of clarification and/or challenge, such as,
b. What is your main point?
c. What do you mean by…?
d. What would be an example?
e. What would not be an example (though close to being one)?
f. How does that apply to this case (describe a case, which might well appear to be a counter example)?
g. What difference does it make?
h. What are the facts?
i. Is this what you are saying: ____________?
j. Would you say some more about that?
(The next two involve the basis for the decision.)
4. Judge the credibility of a source. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions):
b. Lack of conflict of interest
c. Agreement among sources
e. Use of established procedures
f. Known risk to reputation
g. Ability to give reasons
h. Careful habits
5. Observe, and judge observation reports. Major criteria (but not necessary conditions, except for the first):
a. Minimal inferring involved
b. Short time interval between observation and report
c. Report by the observer, rather than someone else (that is, the report is not hearsay)
d. Provision of records.
f. Possibility of corroboration
g. Good access
h. Competent employment of technology, if technology is useful
i. Satisfaction by observer (and reporter, if a different person) of the credibility criteria in Ability # 4 above.
(The next three involve inference.)
6. Deduce, and judge deduction
a. Class logic
b. Conditional logic
c. Interpretation of logical terminology in statements, including
(1) Negation and double negation
(2) Necessary and sufficient condition language
(3) Such words as "only", "if and only if", "or", "some", "unless", "not both".
7. Induce, and judge induction
a. To generalizations. Broad considerations:
(1) Typicality of data, including sampling where appropriate
(2) Breadth of coverage
(3) Acceptability of evidence
b. To explanatory conclusions (including hypotheses)
(1) Major types of explanatory conclusions and hypotheses:
(a) Causal claims
(b) Claims about the beliefs and attitudes of people
(c) Interpretation of authors’ intended meanings
(d) Historical claims that certain things happened (including criminal accusations)
(e) Reported definitions
(f) Claims that some proposition is an unstated reason that the person actually used
(2) Characteristic investigative activities
(a) Designing experiments, including planning to control variables
(b) Seeking evidence and counter-evidence
(c) Seeking other possible explanations
(3) Criteria, the first five being essential, the sixth being desirable
(a) The proposed conclusion would explain the evidence
(b) The proposed conclusion is consistent with all known facts
(c) Competitive alternative explanations are inconsistent with facts
(d) The evidence on which the hypothesis depends is acceptable.
(e) A legitimate effort should have been made to uncover counter-evidence
(f) The proposed conclusion seems plausible
8. Make and judge value judgments: Important factors:
a. Background facts
b. Consequences of accepting or rejecting the judgment
c. Prima facie application of acceptable principles
e. Balancing, weighing, deciding
(The next two abilities involve advanced clarification.)
9. Define terms and judge definitions. Three dimensions are form, strategy, and content.
a. Form. Some useful forms are:
(4) Equivalent expression
(6) Example and non-example
b. Definitional strategy
(a) Report a meaning
(b) Stipulate a meaning
(c) Express a position on an issue (including "programmatic" and "persuasive" definitions)
(2) Identifying and handling equivocation
c. Content of the definition
10. Attribute unstated assumptions (an ability that belongs under both clarification and, in a way, inference)
(The next two abilities involve supposition and integration.)
11. Consider and reason from premises, reasons, assumptions, positions, and other propositions with which they disagree or about which they are in doubt -- without letting the disagreement or doubt interfere with their thinking ("suppositional thinking")
12. Integrate the other abilities and dispositions in making and defending a decision
(The first twelve abilities are constitutive abilities. The next three are auxiliary critical thinking abilities: Having them, though very helpful in various ways, is not constitutive of being a critical thinker.)
13. Proceed in an orderly manner appropriate to the situation. For example:
a. Follow problem solving steps
b. Monitor one's own thinking (that is, engage in metacognition)
c. Employ a reasonable critical thinking checklist
14. Be sensitive to the feelings, level of knowledge, and degree of sophistication of others
15. Employ appropriate rhetorical strategies in discussion and presentation (orally and in writing), including employing and reacting to "fallacy" labels in an appropriate manner.
Examples of fallacy labels are "circularity," "bandwagon," "post hoc," "equivocation," "non sequitur," and "straw person."
Critical thinking is "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends (Dewey 1933: 118)."
(1) an attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences, (2) knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning, and (3) some skill in applying those methods. Critical thinking calls for a persistent effort to examine any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the evidence that supports it and the further conclusions to which it tends. (Glaser 1941, pp. 5-6).
Abilities include: "(a) to recognize problems, (b) to find workable means for meeting those problems, (c) to gather and marshal pertinent information, (d) to recognize unstated assumptions and values, (e) to comprehend and use language with accuracy, clarity and discrimination, (f) to interpret data, (g) to appraise evidence and evaluate statements, (h) to recognize the existence of logical relationships between propositions, (i) to draw warranted conclusions and generalizations, (j) to put to test the generalizations and conclusions at which one arrives, (k) to reconstruct one's patterns of beliefs on the basis of wider experience; and (l) to render accurate judgments about specific things and qualities in everyday life." (p.6)
MCC General Education Initiatives
"Critical thinking includes the ability to respond to material by distinguishing between facts and opinions or personal feelings, judgments and inferences, inductive and deductive arguments, and the objective and subjective. It also includes the ability to generate questions, construct, and recognize the structure of arguments, and adequately support arguments; define, analyze, and devise solutions for problems and issues; sort, organize, classify, correlate, and analyze materials and data; integrate information and see relationships; evaluate information, materials, and data by drawing inferences, arriving at reasonable and informed conclusions, applying understanding and knowledge to new and different problems, developing rational and reasonable interpretations, suspending beliefs and remaining open to new information, methods, cultural systems, values and beliefs and by assimilating information."
Nickerson, Perkins and Smith (1985)
"The ability to judge the plausibility of specific assertions, to weigh evidence, to assess the logical soundness of inferences, to construct counter-arguments and alternative hypotheses."
Moore and Parker, Critical Thinking
Critical Thinking is "the careful, deliberate determination of whether we should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim, and the degree of confidence with which we accept or reject it."
"We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based. CT is essential as a tool of inquiry. As such, CT is a liberating force in education and a powerful resource in one's personal and civic life. While not synonymous with good thinking, CT is a pervasive and self-rectifying human phenomenon. The ideal critical thinker is habitually inquisitive, well-informed, trustful of reason, open-minded, flexible, fair-minded in evaluation, honest in facing personal biases, prudent in making judgments, willing to reconsider, clear about issues, orderly in complex matters, diligent in seeking relevant information, reasonable in the selection of criteria, focused in inquiry, and persistent in seeking results which are as precise as the subject and the circumstances of inquiry permit. Thus, educating good critical thinkers means working toward this ideal. It combines developing CT skills with nurturing those dispositions which consistently yield useful insights and which are the basis of a rational and democratic society."
A little reformatting helps make this definition more comprehensible:
We understand critical thinking to be purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in
as well as explanation of the
considerations upon which that judgment is based.
Francis Bacon (1605)
"For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture."
A shorter version is "the art of being right."
Or, more prosaically: critical thinking is "the skillful application of a repertoire of validated general techniques for deciding the level of confidence you should have in a proposition in the light of the available evidence."