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Inferring Meaning


Explanations > The SIFT Model > Inferring Meaning

Inference filters | ValidationDeep thinking | Emotional state | Deep stuff | See also


The stream of visual, auditory and other sensory data that assaults us is really just light and sound with no inherent meaning. Within our minds we must then make sense of what we experience. This is based on previous experiences, beliefs, values, mental models, goals, needs and so on. We thus infer meaning from this wealth of internal data and models as we go from a specific experience to a more generalized interpretation that makes broader sense.



Inference filters

When we see and hear communications from others or have various different experiences we infer their meaning from the combination of a range of different inference filters. Much of the time this is an automatic process and we pay little attention to it.


The output of the inference is some form of meaning. Most of the time, this makes sense and we can then continue to make further use of it. However sometimes the meaning is invalid some way. For example if you saw a person in the street who looked like a friend who you know was in another country, you would in effect think 'Hang on a minute, that can't be them!'

An invalid meaning would then force you to think further about this situation.

Sometimes this validation is not well done, and an erroneous meaning slips by. This is either because we are overloaded and have not validated well, or else the validation worked but the information on which it was based is incorrect. The latter case is extremely common, as our deeper systems are extremely flawed, being themselves largely approximations and interpretations.

Deep thinking

When validation of the meaning fails, this throws us into a mental spin as we try to work out what has happened. In effect, we have to 'manually' perform the inference activities and check our memories and deep systems to find out what happened. Most of the time, this sorts out the problem.

Finding new meaning

Finding new meaning is often an uncomfortable process. Tactics that may be used include:

  • Create one or more hypotheses which must then be verified.
  • Ask someone else to explain what has happened.
  • Watch other people around to see what they will do.
  • Change deep systems, including memories, so that we can create acceptable meaning.
  • Ignore the situation, pretending that nothing has happened.

For example, when we have seen a person who we know is elsewhere, we will look again at them and check our internal visual models and memories to verify that the person really looks like them. If the person still looks like our friend, we may develop various hypotheses, such as the person is a visual double and that the friend has unexpectedly returned. This will then throw us into various activities to test these hypotheses, for example trying to catch their eye to see if they recognize us. Alternatively, we might change our memories and think 'That does not look like my friend' and then walk past them without a further word.

Emotional state

Meaning changes state

The meaning we create from our inference activities has a significant effect on how we feel and our emotional state. For example if a person not talking to us is interpreted as a snub then we may feel upset, whilst if it is seen as them being distracted, we may just feel a little frustrated.

State changes meaning

This is a circular system, as our current state also affects how we infer meaning. Thus if we are feeling upset, all other activities by the person who has affronted us will be colored by this feeling. Even if they apologize, we might see this as patronizing or otherwise trying to hurt us further.

Deep stuff

The deep systems of needs, goals, values, beliefs, mental models, memories and emotional state both influence the inference activities and may be changed when the inference does not work.

Changing the deep stuff

If we cannot explain what has happened in any other way, we are forced to change the systems by which we infer meaning.

This is very significant in situations of persuasion where you want the other person to change what they believe or how they think about things. If you can create situations where they cannot create a valid meaning and ensure they do not pass this by or otherwise create false meaning, then you can persuade anyone of anything.

See also


Theories about meaning

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