The Shocking Truth About Beliefs

From our beliefs we take action. That’s simple enough, but what happens if your beliefs are faulty or incomplete? Before I answer that question, let’s take a quick look at how we form our beliefs. To do that, I’ll borrow The Ladder of Inference, a tool that was first put forth by psychologist Chris Argyris.


Picture a ladder with action on the top rung.

We start up the ladder with some data and experiences.

From there, we:

  • Assimilate selected data based on our perceptions and prior experience.
  • Make value judgements on the selected data to interpret what the data means.
  • Look for patterns and meaning and apply our existing assumptions, most times without considering them.
  • Draw logical conclusions based on the interpreted facts and our assumptions.
  • Adopt beliefs based on these conclusions.
  • Take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what we believe.

The quality of your beliefs and the subsequent actions you take will be based on how thorough you were moving up The Ladder of Inference. The trouble is most of us take our thinking for granted and we move up The Ladder of Inference without challenging ourselves on each rung of the ladder. Our thinking is so efficient that we don’t think about our thinking.

So back to the question what happens if are our beliefs are faulty or incomplete. Here are a few famous examples of what happens:

Well informed people know it is impossible to transmit the voice over wires and that were it possible to do so, the thing would be of no practical value. – Editorial in the Boston Post (1865)

This `telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a practical form of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us. – Western Union internal memo, 1878

[Television] won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night. – Darryl F. Zanuck, head of 20th Century-Fox, 1946.

A new source of power… called gasoline has been produced by a Boston engineer. Instead of burning the fuel under a boiler, it is exploded inside the cylinder of an engine. The dangers are obvious. Stores of gasoline in the hands of people interested primarily in profit would constitute a fire and explosive hazard of the first rank. Horseless carriages propelled by gasoline might attain speeds of 14 or even 20 miles per hour. The menace to our people of vehicles of this type hurtling through our streets and along our roads and poisoning the atmosphere would call for prompt legislative action even if the military and economic implications were not so overwhelming… [T]he cost of producing [gasoline] is far beyond the financial capacity of private industry… In addition the development of this new power may displace the use of horses, which would wreck our agriculture. – U. S. Congressional Record, 1875.

Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. – Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), ca. 1895, British mathematician and physicist

There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home. – Kenneth Olsen, president and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

How can you use The Ladder of Inference to Your Advantage?


1. Take time to consider your reasoning

Because we move up The Ladder of Inference almost instantaneously, you need to make a conscious effort to stop and think about your thinking.

2. Consider where you are on the ladder

Selecting you data or past experiences?
Interpreting what it means?
Making assumptions?
Forming conclusions?
Deciding what to do and why?

3. Analyse your reasoning by working back down the ladder

At each stage ask yourself what you are thinking and why. As you go along, you may need to adjust your reasoning. Ask yourself:

  • Why have I chosen this course of action?
  • What belief lead to that action?
  • Why did I draw that conclusion?
  • What am I assuming ad why?
  • What data have I chosen to use and why?
  • What are the real facts that I should be using?

How has one of your beliefs impacted on a recent decision that you’ve made? Share in the comments.