Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Trap of Inference

ladder climbingIf you tuned into the Conflict Management Webex, you learned about the trap of the Ladder of Inference.  To illustrate the trap, participants were asked to partner up on a simple 1st grade math problem.  They all read the same problem themselves and heard me read the problem out loud.  Now these are all bankers and, we would expect bankers to successfully answer a math problem involving only addition and subtraction.  However, this was not the case.

Not only did over a dozen bankers get the problem wrong (nobody got it correct), but there were a variety of answers.  Now, how does a group of presumably number proficient people who have received the same exact data, come to not only the wrong but widely different conclusions?  Well, the Ladder of Inference helps us understand this phenomenon.

At the bottom rung, we find the data.  Moving up the ladder, we find our brain interpreting the data and applying reason.  This is how we think and feel.  At the top of the ladder is our conclusion.  This is what we believe, which is based on how we think and feel.

If a group of bankers with the same data apply interpretation and reasoning and not only come to the wrong, but different conclusions, can you imagine what happens if the parties in the conflict have different data!!!

So, what causes our interpretation and reasoning, i.e., how we think and feel, to be so very different even when we have the same data?  There are five primary ingredients.

First, our values impact how we think and feel.  Values are strongly held “truths” that are so deeply embedded in your core that nobody is going to prove your values false.  A value based conflict, such as, the conflicts in the Middle East, are nearly impossible to resolve through conflict management.

Second, emotions drive how we think and feel.  Think back to when you or someone lost emotional control.  Chances are the strong emotions being felt and exhibited impacted what was being felt and thought.

Third, history drives how we think and feel.  Our own personal experiences significantly impact what we think and feel about situations that arise, especially if you’ve had a similar situation occur in the past.  If you’ve had a good or bad experience with someone or in a particular situation, your brain creates neural pathways that impact you think and feel.  If the experience was a bad one, your neural system immediately connects to your adrenal glands and tells them to excrete the flight or fight hormone -adrenaline.  This adrenaline certainly impacts your behavior and the conclusions you draw.

Fourth, communication drives how we think and feel.  If you prefer to communicate in a calm, low volume, soft manner and the person that you have the potential conflict with is a “loud” talker, well, that impacts how we think and feel.  If you are an introvert and prefer quiet time to analyze how to respond and the other person is an extrovert who wants to not only to communicate right now, but to also “think” out loud, well that impacts how we think and feel.

Finally, structure drives how we think and feel.  An example of structure is your profession.  If you are a banker, that drives what you think and feel about Dodd Frank.  If you are a teenager, that drives what you think about that darn curfew rule.  If you are the boss, that drives how you look at a business situation.  Structure impacts how we think and feel.

Think back to a conflict.   It could be a historical one, or one in which you were involved.  Which one or more of the five ingredients were impacting how the parties felt and thought?  How did it impact their feeling and thinking….from your perspective?