The Ladder of Inference is one of the most effective tools in understanding and explaining why we so often get into conflict and fail to get resolution. The Ladder of Inference was originally articulated by Chris Argyris and popularized in Peter Senge’s book – The Fifth Discipline.
If we learn, understand and make conscious out thinking process using the ladder of inference, we will see people and the world in a whole different light and believe it or not, stress will go down.
Here is my simple rendition of the ladder of inference:
Anyway, what the ladder of inference says it that in the first instance, our brains are absorbing tons of data every moment…. and… based on the data we see, we then take action and come to conclusions. What we don’t realize is that there is a lot more going on between seeing something and taking action. Its just that our brains are so fast that we don’t realize it. So this is what happens:
At the bottom end of the ladder – I will label it Step 1 – our brain pick up pure data – just like a photograph. Everything is captured. At at this moment, there is no meaning to it. Its just data.
The we go into the subconscious process:
Step 2: from what we observe (the data in step 1) we start to filter and select specific pieces of it.
Step 3: we start to add meaning to the data, base on our experiences and believes of the world
step 4: we then draw conclusions from the meaning we have added to the data
step 5: we then adopt beliefs of the world
step 6 we take action based on those beliefs.
A simple test of this is give 3 people the very same picture and ask them to tell you what its all about, you will get 3 different stories. Its not the picture that tells the story but it is us interpreting the picture based on our experiences and beliefs.
Another simple test…. if I say MALAS (Lazy), followed by: Malay, Chinese…. Which did you associate with MALAS?
100% of people whom I have tried this on have all responded MALAS = Malay. Why? Because of beliefs and assumptions.
If I say hardworking; Chinese , Indian …….., you bet it. 100% say hardworking = Chinese.
And that is how the ladder of inference works.
Here is a really nice story form today’s Sunday Star that illustrates the ladder of inference so well:
Express bus drivers are reckless, irresponsible speed maniacs, right? Sometimes one is surprised.
My laptop nearly flew off my lap when the coach swerved sharply to the left. Boring a laser stare into the back of the driver’s head, I muttered to myself: “Do you think you’re a stuntman, ah?”
Our Schumacher wannabe was to give me several more near-coronaries.
He would peer into the mirror disconcertingly numerous times, then chuckle to himself. It didn’t help that I was seated in the first row of the bus and had a full view of his every movement and antic.
I slumped into my seat, resigned to the fact that I would spend the rest of the trip on the edge of my seat. When he finally pulled over at the Sungei Perak stop, I was bristling with indignation, with all sorts of nasty thoughts coursing through my head.
By a stroke of luck, the first person I spotted upon reaching the food court was Mr Stuntman Wannabe at a table all to himself.
“Ah Moi, would you like to join me for a bite?” he said, exposing toothy gums and gesturing to the empty seats.
Nobody with an ounce of politeness could possibly rebuff the invitation, so I smiled stiffly and went to buy my nasi lemak and Milo, before joining him at the table.
He looked at me questioningly. “Hey, where is your other bag?”
I cocked a questioning eyebrow.
“Weren’t you using your laptop just now? Not safe to leave it in the bus, girl. It’s OK if you didn’t take it out, but since you have, people already know you own one.”
In my hurry to sate my hunger, I had left my laptop in its bag on the front seat of the bus. Unattended.
“Abang, I think I better go and get it. Could you . . .” I gestured meaningfully at my food, fighting rising panic.
He nodded and waved me on. “Go on, I’ll take care of your food for you.”
I raced back to the bus. Thankfully, nothing was amiss. Slinging my backpack over one shoulder, I hurried back to the food court.
“So what’s next after Penang?” I asked, digging into the rice and sambal fish. I was now determined to make polite conversation. After all, his presence of mind had probably saved me a fortune.
“After reaching Penang tonight, we will drive down to Singapore at midnight, me and my partner.”
“Tonight?” I asked disbelievingly.
“Yup. It’s been like that every day: Singapore to Penang, and then, during midnight, Penang to Singapore. Been doing that for 30 days straight. No rest in between.”
“Why?” I was genuinely puzzled. “Don’t you guys get rest days?”
“When you rest, no money.”
“How come? Don’t you get a basic salary?” I asked, thinking perhaps he wanted to earn extra by working on off days, too.
“Nope. I get paid per trip I make. So I only get paid when I work.”
Now I remembered. The fact that express bus drivers didn’t get salaries surfaced when there was a huge uproar over a fatal bus accident in Bukit Gantang months ago. How quickly people forget.
“Thirty days non-stop, two trips a day. Don’t you feel tired at all?” I marvelled.
He shook his head.
“Nope, I’m used to this. I’ve been driving buses for ten years now. Well, I’m resting afterwards. When we reach Penang, I will sleep for a few hours while they do maintenance work on the bus, before heading down later.”
“Not everyone has the luxury of working in a job for the love of it. For most people, it’s about simple economics,” a friend had said once.
I silently counted my blessings. Suddenly, I no longer wanted to dash off a complaint letter to the Road Transport Department. Of course, there was no excuse for reckless driving, but maybe there was a gentler, more subtle way of making my point than direct rebuke.
“Ten years, huh?” I repeated. “You must be an expert at driving buses now,” I stroked his ego a bit first, before jumping into the heart of my grief.
“You know, just now, when the bus was swaying from side to side, I was beginning to wonder if you were paying attention to the road.”
“Oh, that?” He looked surprised.
“I did it deliberately to dodge potholes, adik. I know these highways like the back of my hand, right down to every hole and every bend.”
“OK,” I conceded, “but what about the time you kept glancing at the mirror and laughing to yourself? I saw you do that many times and it was really unnerving.”
“Oh, that?! I was laughing at the motorcyclist behind me. Do you know that motorcyclists sometimes tailgate buses – they hitch on to the slipstream created by the bus’ trajectory? Well, there was one fellow doing that but half way through, the wind was too strong and his motorcycle was swaying from side to side. That was why I was laughing!
“As a bus driver, you have to be constantly alert. That’s why I periodically check the mirror. You are carrying the lives of people in your hands, so you need to be able to read and anticipate the reaction of the drivers in front and at the back of you,” he explained.
“Yup, you see a lot of things when you do this job. That’s why I love my job. I see people from all walks of life, up to all kinds of antics. For example, I’ve seen couples up to all sorts of high jinks at the back of the bus,” he winked meaningfully.
“You mean that mirror above you can give you a view of ALL your passengers?” I asked, realisation dawning.
He nodded, a slow grin spreading over his face.
“Phew. I’m glad I found that out. I’m never going to dig my nose in a bus again!” I deadpanned.
We walked companionably back to the bus, after he waited for me to finish my meal. I was no longer anxious like before. Something told me I was going to reach home safe and sound.
I hope you now have a better understanding of the ladder of inference.