Every time we interact with people and the world around us, we go through a subconscious thought process, known as the Inference Ladder –a model originally developed by Harvard Professor Chris Argyris.

The Inference Ladder refers to the steps we take in our thinking process, from taking in the information around us to acting on it. Each stage can be thought of as a rung on a ladder which looks like this:

  • Reality and facts of what’s going on
  • Filter/ select data based on what we believe is important
  • Assign meaning to the data we have selected
  • Make assumptions based on the meaning assigned
  • Develop conclusions based on assumptions
  • Adjust beliefs about the world
  • Take action based on adjusted beliefs

We go through this thought process automatically, and often quickly, which helps us to make in the moment decisions. However, it can also go against us. The meanings we apply, and thereby the assumptions we make, are based on many internal factors such as our experiences, beliefs, preferences and prejudices, which can make us jump to the wrong conclusions.

For example, imagine you’re waiting for a parking space, which someone then steals. You would probably conclude that the driver is an incredibly rude person. But what if the driver was very polite and they did it because of an emergency? In this case, your initial conclusion would be wrong.

How does the ladder of inference impact how your marketing messages are received?

When it comes to marketing messages, previous experiences and habitual thoughts can influence the decision making of the person reading that message.

Starting at the bottom of the ladder, we have the messages you are conveying about what you offer. From there your audience will experience these selectively, based on their beliefs and prior experience; interpret what they mean; apply their existing assumptions (sometimes without considering them); draw conclusions based on the interpreted facts and their assumptions; develop beliefs based on these conclusions; and take actions that seem “right” because they are based on what they believe.

From the second rung upwards, all sorts of filtering and previous assumptions can be applied, which may work well if you have a highly loyal client base who will filter the positive out of what your marketing materials convey.

However, what is more likely, is that your audience will be filtering your information through negative filters. For example, they may have a negative attitude towards the industry you operate in and so a series of negative assumptions will underpin their decisions. Even if they do engage with you, it may be with a great deal of reluctance because they are filtering on any negatives they see. Or they may have had a particularly bad experience with another brand and don’t want to consider another option.

People connect their own stories to your message and understanding the decision-making process and deconstructing it can help you understand your audience’s potential responses at each stage of the process, which could be positive or negative.

Each stage can offer an opportunity to change the view of your potential clients.

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