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Inference Filters


Explanations > The SIFT Model > Inferring meaning >  Inference Filters

  ClassificationAlignment with interests | Future implications | Judgment | Other influences | Example


We effectively pass our senses through a series of automatic filters that each act to give meaning to what has happened. Some of these necessarily come first, such as the recognition of a person. Other filters are less sequence-dependent and in practice it is more of a network of activities where the meaning created by one filter may lead to another filter being re-applied to create additional meaning in the light of this new interpretation.





Classification answers the basic question ‘What am I perceiving?’ and when compared with previous similar experiences may allow other information to be deduced.

Basic recognition

The first thing that we do when receiving an input from our senses is to break it up into pieces that we can classify according to the patterns we have stored in our memories.

Recognition comes in stages. We first recognize the general item from its shape, color, smell, etc. (‘That is a hat’). We may then classify it further ('That is a top hat') and even make specific attributions about it ('That is my top hat!'). 

If we cannot easily classify something, we will try to approximate it to an available classification (‘That looks like a hat’). Our minds are very good at pattern-matching and even a rough shape under a blanket may be perceived as a hat. 

In the rare occasions when we cannot even approximate a classification we might dismiss the perception (using the relevance filter), invent a new classification (for which we may need more data) or be worried by the threat that it might pose to us (using the forecasting filter).

The context filter

Imagine someone pointing a knife at you. How do you interpret that? If it’s a dark night and you are in a shady part of town, then it will have a different meaning from if you are in the kitchen and a member of the family is handing you the butter knife.

The surrounding context in which events happen has a significant effect on how we interpret those events. It is thus a good idea when you want to change someone to go somewhere where the surroundings are conducive to them agreeing with you. To achieve compliance, put them in a formal context. To get enthusiasm, seek out stimulation. For relaxing find somewhere informal and quiet.

Alignment with interests

When I have identified what I am perceiving, I can then add further meaning in terms of those things that are important to me or in which I have some interest. This includes specific goals and general areas of interest.

Success criteria

When we are considering the meaning of something after we have taken some form of action to try and achieve our considered goals (and a large amount of what we do can be viewed in this way), then we view what has happened in comparison with those goals. For example, if you were doing an experiment with a way of working, if you achieved your goals or even seemed to be heading in the right direction, then you may well consider this a success and consequently be pleased.

The relevance filter

If you are thinking of using a new advertising campaign or are an advertising professional then all adverts will be relevant to you and you will take notice of them more than other people. This is your relevance filter clicking in, saying ‘hang on a minute, out of all the irrelevant junk that has been passing before my eyes, this bit is actually of interest.’

The same effect happens when you have recently bought a new car and suddenly you seem to notice every car like yours on the road. Things at the top of your mind will act as filters on your perceptions.

If what we are perceiving is relevant to what we do or our broad areas of interest, then we will give it more time to understand its true meaning, especially as it relates to our goals.

Future implications

The future is all we have left, but it is uncertain and difficult to control. We thus pay close attention to the sequence of events through time and what the future might mean.

The forecast filter

Having a gun poked in your face can be very scary. But why?–it is only a piece of metal. What happens is that we take our current experience and extrapolate it into the future, typically using our mental models (which are often wrong or limited) and then create meaning from the future we see.

A particularly important forecast that we frequently are looking for is how things might threaten us. This is understandable when viewed in the evolutionary light, as there was much in the primitive jungles to threaten our forefathers.

Forecasts can also be positive and an optimist will interpret many situations has having potential for interesting gains. 

The expectation filter

If you buy a new computer and the salesperson tells you that it has studio-quality video graphics, then anything less than an excellent picture will probably disappoint you. Having had your expectations set, the meaning you create from your experience is now relative to those expectations.

Expectations may come from previous experience, forecast futures or from an external source, such as when we accept someone else’s forecasts about what will happen. When we are heavily influenced by other people, many of our expectations are likely to come from them.

When what actually happens is not what we expected, we are surprised. If what happens is interpreted positively, then we are delighted. If we are surprised in a negative way, then we are disappointed. Surprise often leads to us changing behavior or doing something different (such as not buying anything else from the computer shop).


Beyond recognition and success, I can also make judgments about what I am perceiving, to determine whether it is good or bad, trustworthy or not.

The evaluation filter

If you see someone shouting at a child, what do you thing about this behavior? Do you feel that it is wrong? If so, you are evaluating it in terms of your own values, your individual system of right and wrong.

People with strong moral and ethical drivers will tend to be very evaluative in their interpretations of the world around them. Judgments are affected by established mental models such as when you show a new invention to other people, who seem to see its faults and how it will not work, rather than consider its possibilities.

Our education system is based on criticism, and we learn what is right very often by avoiding what is wrong. We thus cannot help but to adopt much of this critical attitude and consequently can filter out creative opportunity through our evaluation of our experiences.

The trust filter

Consider what you would think if someone, who in the past had deliberately deceived you, came to you with an idea for increasing productivity in your workplace. Your first thought might, quite legitimately, be ‘what is this person trying to trick me into now?’ The same applies to inanimate objects, for example if a car keeps breaking down on you, you might never buy that make ever again.

Trust is one of the key reasons that we form groups of friends and band into companies. We in effect say, ‘If I help you today, I trust that you will help me in return in the future.’ Ongoing relationships are about delayed exchanges in value. It is also what brand names are all about. When we buy from Sony or BMW we are trusting them to provide us with a high quality product.

Other influences

Deep stuff

The filters all draw from our deeper systems, including needs, goals, values, beliefs and mental models. These act in varying degrees within each filter--for example, the evaluation filter draws heavily on our values. The filters are also affected by our memories.  

Emotional state

How we interpret our experiences will also depend on our current emotional state. If we are happy, then events will be inferred to be far more positive than if we are in a depressed state.  






Aha! It's a tree! In fact it's an apple tree!!


It's in my garden so it is mine. All the apples will be mine.


I like apples, so the tree is of interest.


I want to make ten gallons of cider. The apples are growing well.


The leaves look blackened. There could be a parasite attacking it!


The tree gave sixty pounds of apples last year. I expect the same this year.


Apples taste good and are good for you. The spray is recommended and harmless to animals.


 I believe the spray will kill the parasites ok.


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