How our brains can work against us

Written by William Campbell

Over the last few weeks we have been writing more about how to engage those who different from us – religiously, politically, geographically – and though we may acknowledge this is important in a vague sort of way, we don’t take the time to recognize how to actually accomplish this. In fact, part of the reason why it is so difficult for conservatives and progressives, rural and city folks, or [insert whatever difference is most relevant to you right now] is because our brains actually work against us. Here I want to talk briefly about one of these ways.

The human mind is capable of amazing things. We are able to take bits of information and create rapid interpretations and conclusions. Sometimes this ability is a strength when for instance we may need to make decisions on the fly in a high pressure situation. Other times, though, this ability can serve as more of a liability.

Take a moment to think of a time when you were in a conversation where somehow out of nowhere you go from talking about a silly detail of your day to a full blown argument? Or how about a time when you thought you were just asking a simple question and all of a sudden the other person is offended and walks away? This is what organizational learning scholar Chris Argyris calls “leaps of abstraction.” These leaps can happen in any conversation, but they’re exacerbated in moments when we are encountering people who are of a different background or life experience from us. We can take one phrase and attach it to that person’s entire social identity and community. This is why generalization and stereotyping can be so easy.

I wanted to write up this post because more often than not, people don’t admit that it’s actually quite difficult to be in relationship with people who are different from us. At Interfaith Youth Core, we feel it is important to point out that diversity isn’t just the differences you like, such as egg rolls and samosas. Diversity is also about the differences you don’t like, such as how you disagree on issues like abortion and immigration. This post uncovers just one piece of the science behind why it can be hard to actually build a more respectful and equitable society. Here is how these leaps of abstraction can work.

Imagine you are a someone who identifies more with urban living. You don’t need to identify as a “city person” per se, but you know that you are not one “those” people who live in the   country. You then find yourself in a conversation with someone who does live in the country. That person makes a casual remark about how they like living in the country because they don’t have to worry about noise and crime. You think, “Why did they just mention noise and crime?” You then wonder, “Do they think the city is full of rampant crime? Why would they think that?” Then it may dawn on you, “Of course this person thinks the city isn’t safe because in cities they have to interact with people who are of a different race or religion from them.” You then think, “Well that makes sense because they’re from the country. Country people are all a bunch of racists.” All of this goes on in your head in the span of a few seconds. Regardless if any of what you thought was true or not, your eventual response is a reaction to the leaps of abstraction you just made.

A helpful metaphor from Rick Ross is that of a ladder.  What is happening here is the process of taking a few quick steps up a “ladder” of inference. Below I’ve inserted a helpful model of how this process works starting from the bottom.

Adapted from Rick Ross in “The Ladder of Inference #35” in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook: Strategies and Tools for Building a Learning Organization.

As you can see in the above image, we start at the bottom of the ladder through the observations we make of a particular situation. Our minds then move up the ladder in quick succession. We select data from what we observe (in this case, that the person mentioned noise and crime), and then we add meaning to that data. A particular meaning here might be that they think the city is full of crime.  Then we make assumptions on that meaning, which in this case would be that they think this because they are from the country. Here is where our minds can kick into overdrive because the space between assumption and conclusion is lightning fast. I use this example of because it is not uncommon. I have heard countless iterations of this conversation between country and city people. Yes, sometimes people have problematic assumptions about the city when it comes to crime yet sometimes peoples’ desire for safety is legitimate.

I think it is safe to say that it does not take long for most people to identify this phenomenon in some kind of recent interaction with someone. When written out, this phenomenon can seem absurd, but in reality, this is how the mind works. And that’s the key to understanding how to prevent dramatic leaps of abstraction – understanding that this is how the mind works. Outside of the first rung of the ladder – observable data – everything else is happening only in our own minds. Yet we are so quick to say, “You made me feel this way.” What makes it worse is that we are more susceptible to running up the ladder if we have a history of doing this for one particular person or group of people. This is important. The more we think suspiciously about a person or group of people, the easier it is to run up this ladder! On the flip side, there is a counter reaction where the other individual is reacting to your inferences and moving up their own ladder.

The key then is learning how to recognize it when it is happening. Here are a few steps adopted from Peter Senge and Rick Ross in managing yourself as you run up and down the ladder.

  1. Knowing that this process exists in the first place is essential for recognition. Part of the process of managing assumptions is the recognition that they even exist.
  2. You might not realize you’re moving up the ladder until you’re already at step 3 or 4. That is normal. Once you are at this point, though, ask yourself, “What am I basing this meaning or assumption on?” Usually, we are in the throws of some kind of psychosomatic reaction such as sweaty palms, clenched teeth, or tense shoulders. That kind of bio feedback is helpful in recognizing that you are somewhere on the ladder.
  3. Then Peter Senge poses an important and provocative question that you ask yourself, “Am I willing to consider that this generalization may be inaccurate or misleading?” At it’s core, this is an ego question. The willingness to acknowledge that we might not be reading a situation correctly is connected our sense of pride. However, this is essential moving back down the ladder.
  4. Do the hard work of separating your observations from your generalizations. What I have found is that at this point, it is just as easy to move back up the ladder because other personal and cultural assumptions about what is right and wrong in the world and workplace can interject. Though these should not be ignored, it is just as easy to move back up the ladder. Do your best to continue separating observation from generalization.

Understanding the way we move up and down the ladder of inference is just one component of understanding how to navigate difference. As we move and live in a country increasingly divided across identities and experiences such as the rural/urban life, understanding how we can have better interactions is essential.


Ross, R. (1994). The ladder of inference. In P. M. Senge, A. Kleiner, C. Roberts, B. J. Smith, & R. Ross (Eds.), The fifth discipline fieldbook (pp. 242-246). New York: Doubleday

Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. New York: Doubleday


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