Deductive vs. Inductive Thinking: What’s the Difference?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Culture Map" by Erin Meyer. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between deductive vs. inductive thinking? Which cultures tend to adopt either style of thinking?

Deductive thinking moves from broad, overarching principles to specific observations. In contrast, inductive thinking moves from specific data points to overarching hypotheses or theories. According to cultural communication expert Erin Meyer, Latin Americans tend to be deductive thinkers, whereas North Americans and people from Anglo-Saxon countries tend towards inductive thinking.

In this article, we’ll consider the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning in a cultural context.

The 2 Types of Reasoning: Deductive vs. Inductive

The difference between deductive vs. inductive thinking is that the former moves from general to specific, and the latter—the other way round.

When you reason deductively, you first formulate a general hypothesis or concept and then deduce a conclusion from this concept. One common example of deductive reasoning is this: All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. As such, Socrates is mortal. You draw the final conclusion (Socrates is mortal) by combining the first two principles.

How First Principles Thinking Drives Innovation

A similar type of thinking, which James Clear defines as “first principles thinking,” can drive innovation. In first principles thinking, you boil a problem down to only what is true and proven, aka its “first principle.” You then innovate by improving on one of those fundamentals. Clear points to the rolling suitcase as an example. The Romans invented the wheel, but it wasn’t until 1970 that Bernard Sadow thought of combining it with a bag to make transporting suitcases easier. The implementation of other technologies, like zippers and the use of nylon, also improved the bag. But before Sadow, nobody had broken down the bag into “a thing you use to carry stuff from place to place,” and decided to improve on how exactly you moved the contents around. Clear elaborates on the importance of fundamentals in our personal lives in Atomic Habits.

When you reason inductively, you look at the data first without formulating an initial hypothesis. You look for patterns and draw conclusions from the phenomena you see in front of you. As such, inductive reasoning is also particularly prone to confirmation bias, the human tendency to find facts that support rather than deny our opinion even when both are available. 

Decutive vs. Inductive Cultures

In business, the cultural pattern of deductive thinking translates to a heavier emphasis on the reasons behind a problem. If you give a presentation, a deductive thinker might ask questions about the methodology you used to gather your data. Similarly, emails written by theoretical thinkers trend on the longer side. First, they present their initial principle. After elaborating on this principle, they’ll then present the biggest counterargument before concluding with the takeaway they want their reader to implement.

Criticisms of businesspeople who think deductively may include that they are insufficiently practical, that they don’t cut to the chase quickly enough, or that they don’t implement recommendations without knowing why they’re given.

In business, a cultural pattern of inductive thinking translates to a heavier emphasis on applying practical solutions to problems. If you give a presentation, an inductive thinker might ask questions about how actionable the strategies you recommend are. Similarly, emails written by inductive thinkers tend to be more concise. They focus on the conclusion they want their reader to draw, and they may not present how they got to that conclusion.

When an inductive thinker presents her arguments to deductive thinkers, she risks insulting her audience. The deductive thinker expects to hear an overarching principle in every argument. When it’s not provided, they assume that the inductive thinker must think they’ll believe anything​​—after all, who in their right mind would buy into an argument without knowing the broader concept behind it? In this way, a deductive thinker views the empirical thinker’s failure to provide a first principle as an insult to their intelligence. (Shortform note: Conversely, the opposite might be true. A deductive thinker might hesitate to deliver arguments concisely because they think to do so would be offensive. If you’re an empiricist with a deductive thinker on your team, consider telling them explicitly that being concise isn’t offensive in your culture.) 

Deductive vs. Inductive Thinking: What’s the Difference?

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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