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Ladder of Inference and Psychological Models in Air Travel Insights

Ever wondered what airplanes and ladders have in common? While the link might not be immediately apparent, both can teach us a lot about our mental processes through a concept known as the Ladder of Inference. 

This psychological model, which has been on my mind after three recent trips, helps us become aware of how we "think about what we're thinking"—a crucial skill for personal and professional growth.

Understanding the Ladder of Inference: A Thought Process

The Ladder of Inference consists of 7 rungs that represent different stages of thinking:

  • Observation of Infinite Data (1st Rung): There is an endless amount of observable data available in any given situation. 

  • Selection of Data (2nd Rung): Often unconsciously, we select specific pieces of data from the vast pool available to us. This selection is influenced by what naturally catches our attention and aligns with our prior experiences or interests. Any given person notices different details based on their perspective and attention. I have a friend who could always spot a new piece of jewelry or hairstyle on someone. Whereas, I confess to being oblivious to such details.

  • Adding Meaning(3rd Rung): We add meaning to what we’re noticing. 

  • Making Assumptions(4th Rung): We make assumptions based on the meaning we add. 

  • Drawing Conclusions(5th Rung): We draw conclusions from our assumptions. 

  • Adopting Beliefs (6th Rung): We adopt beliefs based on our conclusions.

  • Taking Action (7th Rung): The beliefs and conclusions we adopt prompt us to take action. Yes, we all do it.  It’s human nature. This step reflects how our interpretations of data influence our behavior subtly and significantly. 

Real-Life Application: A Lesson from a Flight

So, why did my travels make me think about this model?  This particular “ladder” made itself known to me on a flight from Boston to Philadelphia years ago. So, let me confess what that looked like.  The plane was full of business travelers as well as students returning from summer camps. I was sitting in a middle seat with my work colleague on the aisle and an empty seat on my right. So, I did what we all do in that situation–whether we’re aware of it or not.  I took stock of the passengers coming down the aisle, giving them a mental thumbs up or thumbs down about them becoming my seatmates.   

The person who paused at our aisle was a tall guy with unkempt curly black hair, a leather jacket, ripped jeans, heavy boots and tattoos.  So, from that description, you now know the data I selected out and noticed.  It wasn’t his eye color or the magazine he was carrying. It was his appearance.  And so I climbed that ladder of inference pretty quickly in my head (in seconds) and determined that I had nothing in common with this seatmate.  In fact, I’d seen folks who looked a lot like him on the evening news making trouble.   I concluded I had nothing in common with him.  And so, my action (rung 7) was to make no eye contact or conversation and show extreme interest in the book I was reading.

But here’s the thing. At times, circumstances become our teachers. In this case, our plane hit an air pocket and did a quick descent. I’m sure it lasted seconds but it felt like minutes… The scene was complete with screaming campers, like something right out of a movie. When things settled down again, I heard a soft voice on my right. It said, “Excuse me, ma’am, may I ask you a question? Is that not normal?” I turned to him and admitted that I traveled a lot and had never had that experience. He replied, “Oh, you see I wouldn’t know. This is my first flight. I’ve always been afraid of flying. 

But, ya see, my parents are getting up in years, and they’ve always longed to see the foliage in New England. (I swear those were his exact words!). So I had no choice but to drive them safely to New England to explore. But the thing is my baby turns 3 tomorrow, and daddy doesn’t miss his baby’s birthday for anything. So I had no choice but to hop on a plane.”

Now, wait, what just happened? Well, if we go to the bottom of the ladder, some new data just came into my awareness, challenging my earlier assumptions and meaning, and resulting in new action on my part. In fact, I had a new appreciation for this seatmate of mine.

Applying the Ladder of Inference in Daily Life

Remember that everything from rung 2 through 6 happens in our heads in a nanosecond. It’s invisible to others. All people see is that something happens, resulting in our action. At times, things like air pockets bring new data into our awareness. At other times, we need to simply step back and be open to seeing things we don’t initially see. 

There’s incredible value in inquiring more, asking questions, seeking to understand,  before leaping to conclusions. It’s equally important to make our thinking more transparent to keep others from doing the same.

Lessons from Air Travel: Misjudgments and Insights

Here are key takeaways from using the Ladder of Inference during air travel:

  • Quick Judgments: Our first impressions are often based on minimal and selective information, leading to potentially inaccurate conclusions about others.

  • Impact of Assumptions: These assumptions can dictate our behavior towards others, like choosing to ignore a seatmate based on their appearance.

  • Opportunities for Learning: Unexpected events, like turbulence, can bring new data into our awareness, challenging our previous assumptions and potentially changing our actions and perceptions.

Overcoming Assumptions in the Workplace

And so, that’s what ladders and airplanes have to do with one another. However, these ladders are everywhere, including the workplace. Imagine that Bob shows up to a meeting late. In a few seconds flat, you can climb the ladder to some conclusion:

  • He’s casual about time, especially for meetings he doesn’t value.

  • He’s not interested in the meeting topics.

  • He’s unlikely to support what you are proposing.

  • He will be a force to be reckoned with.

Before you know it, you’re getting defensive with Bob, and he has no clue why. Isn’t it possible the poor guy simply stopped by the restroom on his way to your meeting?

In more cases than I can count, this simple model has created meaningful reflection and dialogue between two parties who were not getting along. Just recently, I used it with two team members who were not getting along. Their issues were creating a ripple through the rest of the team and their client groups. As they made “their ladders” more transparent to each other, the new data created new beliefs about each other and a new possibility for working together. They reflected on it as a breakthrough moment.

Taking the Ladder of Inference to New Heights

So, whether it’s airplanes or ladders…they can take us to new heights!

If you’re interested in seeing how the Ladder of Inference played out between two people sitting in an airport eating cookies, just drop me a note, and I’ll send it your way!

The Ladder of Inference is a valuable tool for comprehending the intricacies of human cognition and decision-making. For additional insights and resources on personal and professional growth, visit Brenda K Reynolds.



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