When your supervisor asks you to talk, you immediately think that the company is planning to part ways with you. When you are criticized by a coworker, you automatically think that you don’t do enough and you’re not the right person for the job. When you get a new task, you assume that you can’t handle it as, for example, you haven’t done anything like that before.

These are just examples of typical catastrophic thinking, that is, the tendency to interpret events in a negative way or in a way that confirms our worst fears. People catastrophize both in their personal and professional lives, and this leads them to make wrong decisions. You can stop catastrophizing by reaching for the tool called the ladder of inference. In today’s post, we’ll explain what it is all about and why it can prove helpful. Read on to find out more.

What is the ladder of inference?

The concept of the ladder of inference was developed by Chris Argyris, an American businessman and professor of psychology and economics at Harvard Business School and Yale School of Management. He introduced it with Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, which explored why we make bad decisions in the workplace.

They found that as human beings we have an unconscious tendency to place situations that happen to us in a negative context, which is a natural mechanism of the brain to ensure that cognitive gaps are filled. The ladder of inference they developed, in turn, provides a way to consciously expand one’s view of reality.

What are the 6 rungs of the ladder of inference?

Developed by Argyris and Senge, the ladder of inference consists of six steps, and each of them is equally important. However, you need to remember that our beliefs have a significant impact on how we look at reality and often lead us to make wrong decisions. Going through the entire process outlined below is a way to avoid it:

  • Facts – we observe something happening in the world. Our observation should be as objective as possible and free of bias (both conscious and unconscious).
  • Interpretation – we give meaning to what we observe. Our interpretations can be shaped by our experiences, beliefs, and expectations.
  • Assumptions – based on our interpretation, we make certain assumptions about what is happening, which can be both explicit and implicit.
  • Conclusions – based on our assumptions, we draw conclusions about what is happening (positive/negative, accurate/inaccurate, etc.).
  • Beliefs – our reflections shape our beliefs about the world.
  • Actions – finally, we take actions or make decisions, which can have both a negative and positive impact on us or others.

Benefits of the ladder of inference

The steps described above perfectly illustrate how we form judgments that often have nothing to do with reality. Being aware of this can therefore become a useful tool for improving our critical thinking (helping us to understand how we draw conclusions and how they lead us to take certain actions).

It may also help us make wiser decisions and, at the same time, consider all the possible interpretations and assumptions so that we can see new possibilities and solutions. The ladder of inference is also a great tool for identifying and testing our beliefs and thereby avoiding the influence of unconscious bias.

ladder of inference


The ladder of inference can help us improve our logical and critical thinking skills, which will not go unnoticed in both personal and professional lives (especially when it comes to relationships with other people). Making decisions, solving problems, negotiating – these are just a few examples where the ladder of inference can be useful.

Using the ladder of inference, however, requires making an effort to assess the situation objectively, and ask ourselves what we are guided by (emotions or reason, facts or speculations?). This is the only way to avoid jumping to hasty conclusions, which may lead us to make wrong choices.

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Author: Nicole Mankin

HR manager with an excellent ability to build a positive atmosphere and create a valuable environment for employees. She loves to see the potential of talented people and mobilize them to develop.