Oh Beware the ladder of inference!

He didn’t reply to my email. It’s been over a week!

Maybe the tone was rude or perhaps I should have written ‘Dr.’ Perhaps now he thinks I’m a really rude person? He looked at that email and thought ‘Jesus, this guy is a real amateur’. The request was so stupid he was insulted by it. That’s probably it. I’ve probably insulted him. Why else wouldn’t he reply? I’m such an idiot! I need to write to him and apologise right away. 

My slightly crap rendering of the ladder of inference
This type of thinking is called climbing the ‘ladder of inference’ a concept developed by Chris Argylis which helps to explain why very small things can  often get blown out of all proportion. For instance, in the above example all that happened is that someone didn’t reply to an email. That is the only ‘fact’ here. Everything else is perception, assumptions and (probably) mistaken conclusions. The person in question might just be busy or on holiday, who knows? The ladder of inference is a product of our incredible brains which are designed to infer meaning where meaning is not always explicit (or doesn’t exist at all). 

For example, if someone in your family shouts ‘door’ at you, after the doorbell goes, they’re not just randomly shouting words, instead they’re informing you that they’d very much like for you to go and open the door. 

But this talent for spotting what’s ‘really’ going on, doesn’t always work well in online discussions. The ladder can at times work to colour our views before we have all the facts. For example, after watching my talk on pseudoscience, one commenter wrote:

You seem to support traditional teaching. Any new technique needs a licence. …Nowadays, you have to focus on the learner.

When climbing the ladder you start with real evidence, that is ‘He doesn’t supports learning styles’. From there you move to selected data and experience ‘old-fashioned teachers don’t use learning styles’. Next you affix meaning ‘he must be an old fashioned teacher’ and make an assumption ‘old fashioned teachers aren’t interested in students, they are teacher-centric and don’t value individuality’ and then act on these beliefs ‘I can disregard this opinion because the teacher is not progressive and doesn’t care about students.’

The talk mentions nothing whatsoever about my preferred teaching method or my view on ‘traditional teaching’ or ‘learner-centred’ approaches. Yet this commenter is already half-way up the ladder. The inference here is that my dismissal of neuromyths must mean that I basically want kids sitting in silence while I crush their individuality and stomp all over their creativity. This is a shame since my lessons are actually filled with rainbow-coloured unicorns.