Tuesday, February 15, 2011

PSYCHOLOGY: Ladder of Inference

The Ladder of Inference theory is a really good one for understanding how some people short circuit reality and come up with new and intriguing ways of looking at the facts. This theory was initially developed by Chris Argyris, I think, and later presented in a book by Peter Senge called 'The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization'. Let's look at how this might affect a character.

So what is this theory about? Basically, it's a ladder.

Real Data & Experience -> Selected Data & Experience -> Affixed Meaning -> Assumptions -> Conclusions -> Beliefs -> Actions.

You begin at the bottom with the actual facts at your character's disposal which are the Real Data & Experience. For example, a noise in the basement at night. This is a true fact. You did hear something.

Of course, rather than pay attention to a whole host of factors (that might reveal the fact you locked your dog in the basement), you choose instead to wittle away the facts until you have a set of Selected Data & Experience which you pay attention to. It's dark. There's a noise in the basement. You just watched a horror movie where a monster ate someone in the basement.

Then we Affix Meaning, such as night time = a time of murderers and monsters. Basements are a place where murders happen. Noises that waken home owners have ominous significance.

We develop a few Assumptions, therefore, anyone who goes into the basement at night after being alerted by a noise will be killed brutally, or at least raped.

We come to a Conclusion, thus, if I go into the basement, I won't be coming out alive.

And finally develop a Belief, oh god, I'm going to die tonight. I'm not safe in my own home.

The Belief then informs our Actions. I'm going to ring the police, the neighbors, and my husband who works the night shift.

Then, by taking that Action, I gain new Real Data & Experience as the police find my dog trapped in the basement and chasing a rat.

Of course, one could argue that it's our Beliefs that influence which data we select. Someone who believes that crime doesn't occur in their town might happily explore the basement and ignore the fact that the front door is unlocked. As could someone who's used to finding their husband tinkering about in the basement and is used to strange sounds at all times of the night.

Still, it's a good structure to think about when your characters are reacting to things. It's especially helpful for those plotters who sit at the drawing board and go: Well, I need my character to go and do this. What would make that a rational response? Tinker with their beliefs, past experiences, and present data available to them, and that'll help make their responses seem more reasonable.

Happy writing!

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