Inductive Reasoning: What Is It? (With Examples)

By Chris Kolmar - Sep. 18, 2020
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Vague terms like inductive reasoning are thrown around all the time in the professional world. Even if you know the definition, sometimes it can be difficult to tell what skill set employers are looking for when they list ‘inductive reasoning’ on a job posting or other professional communication.

If you’ve ever taken a few data points and made a generalization about that sample, you’ve performed inductive reasoning.

It’s something we do in our everyday lives without even knowing there’s a name for it.

What is inductive reasoning?

Going from the specific to the general is at the core of inductive logic. Anytime you make a bigger picture generalization, it’s inductive reasoning. The catch with inductive reasoning is that it’s not fool-proof. Like any guessing logic, there’s a chance that your generalization is incorrect, but that doesn’t mean that inductive assumptions aren’t useful.

Scientists use inductive reasoning all of the time to create hypotheses and test them with experiments. Without that generalized assumption based on a few observations, they wouldn’t even have a hypothesis to test.

Creating these general conclusions is a great way to understand the world around you and start to make educated decisions, from simple tasks like where to eat, all the way to which company would make a better partner.

Inductive reasoning follows this basic format- if you have four identical items and you know that three of them are orange, you can assume that the fourth is also orange. You’re going from a fact about a small group (three objects are orange) to a broader generalization that isn’t necessarily true (all four objects are orange), but likely is.

How does inductive reasoning work?

It’s simple, you make an observation and then create some kind of generalization based on what you observed. Since the assumption is based on observation and examples, there can be truth in your reasoning.

Inductive reasoning can be especially helpful when you’re trying to make predictions or find trends. In both cases, you’re making a conclusion based on an observation of what has happened. Of course, your reasoning needs to be backed up by credible data in order to reach a rational conclusion, but using this logic can usually get you a good understanding of what’s going on.

Imagine you need to boost sales for your company’s online store. You notice that a product that has customer review on the page sells more units than a product without customer reviews. The assumption you make is that products will sell better when there’s customer reviews on the page, so you suggest to your boss to implement customer reviews on each product page to boost sales. This initial assumption may hold true, and looking at more products with and without customer reviews can help validate that generalized conclusion.

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Inductive vs. deductive reasoning

On the flip side of inductive reasoning is deductive reasoning. While inductive reasoning goes from the specific to the general, deductive reasoning goes from the general to the specific. Think of them as two sides of the same coin.

Both are useful reasoning tactics, but they apply to different situations. A common understanding of deductive reasoning, also called a syllogism, includes two premises, a big one and a small one, then a logical conclusion. Using this logic, a big premise could be “A is the same as B” and a small premise could be “C is the same as A”, and you conclude that C is also B.

Let’s look at a real world example of deductive reasoning. Say you need to drive to the store to buy groceries. You know that it’s dangerous to drive in the snow and you also see that it’s currently snowing. From this, you deduce that it’s dangerous to drive right now and you might decide to wait until tomorrow to go grocery shopping. We use deductive reasoning everyday to make decisions like these, including in professional settings.

We’re so used to using both inductive and deductive reasoning that we usually don’t have to stop and think about which reasoning to use. Sometimes, however, you might want to stop and consider which reasoning will help you get to a better solution or conclusion. Think of it this way, if you want to go from something specific, like a monthly sales figure, to something general, you should think inductively. On the other hand, if you want to go from something general, like a theory, to a specific fact, deductive reasoning can help you get there.

Examples of inductive reasoning

We use inductive reasoning in our everyday lives all the time, but the concept can be tricky to understand. Let’s look at a few daily and professional examples of inductive reasoning to better understand it.

Inductive reasoning in daily life

  • You’re looking at flowers in your garden and you know that your roses bloom every year, so you can assume that they’ll bloom again this year.

  • You notice that the dogs on your street bark at the mailman when he delivers mail, so you assume that all dogs bark at mailmen.

  • Note that this is an example of faulty inductive reasoning since only a few dogs were observed and it might not hold true thatall dogs bark atall mailmen.

  • You’re talking to your friends and you’re all telling stories about your grandparents. You can guess that all people have grandparents based on your stories.

  • You’re eating a bag of colored candy and the first four pieces you eat are blue and you guess that the fifth piece will also be blue.

Examples of inductive reasoning at work

  • You need a weekly report from your coworker Mary before you can leave for the weekend. You know that she always sends you the report on Fridays between 2:30 and 3:30 pm before leaving. You can guess that Mary will also send you this week’s report on Friday between 2:30 and 3:30 pm.

  • You ran a report and found out that 90% of the sales associates at your company signed a deal this month, so if you talk to your coworker John, a sales associate, you can guess that he signed a deal this month.

  • You’re reading reviews of your company online and you notice that a customer has complained about how the company did not send a shipping tracking number once their items shipped. You assume that other customers also had this complaint and decide to add shipping tracking numbers to customers’ email receipts to remove this issue for future customers and make them happier.

  • You work in HR and you notice that most of the top-performing employees you hired attended a certain university, so you decide to target that university more for recruiting efforts.

Inductive reasoning requirements

While inductive reasoning is fairly intuitive, there are certain skills that can help you sharpen your logic and reasoning, especially for certain workplace situations. Here’s a few skills you can focus on to build and improve your inductive reasoning.

  1. Critical thinking. After all, inductive reasoning is just a logical process and being able to think critically and be analytic about the ideas and facts at hand will help you come to better conclusions. Don’t be afraid to approach an issue in multiple ways and think about it differently. This can ultimately help you figure out the best solution.

  2. Be detail-oriented. In order to inductively come to a good generalization or conclusion, you need to notice the details and the specifics of a situation. Pay attention to the small things and see how you can build larger inferences from everything around you.

  3. Pattern recognition. One type of inductive reasoning is predictive induction, or using the past to predict something. Being able to notice patterns can then help you come to a logical conclusion. For example, say you notice how sales have been slow at the beginning of each month but spike in the last week of the month, you can assume this month will follow this pattern and create incentives for consumers to buy your product before the last week of the month.

  4. Sharpen your memory. Similar to being able to recognize patterns, you’ll need to remember events and details in order to see all the details that contribute to an inductive conclusion. This doesn’t mean all the details and patterns need to live in your head. You can always keep notes to remind you of events and figures, just remember to take those notes and reference them when you’re trying to make an inductive generalization.

  5. Emotional intelligence. Decisions and reasoning are not entirely fact-based. Oftentimes decisions need to consider people and their emotions, which is where emotional intelligence comes into play. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is the ability to observe and understand your own emotions and the emotions of the people around you. Being able to take into account the more human aspect of reasoning and decision-making will make you a stronger decision maker.

Though inductive reasoning is not strictly a professional skill, being a strong reasoner can help you tremendously in your work.

Think of inductive reasoning as a life skill. It’s broadly applicable in both your personal and professional lives, but it’s a necessary tool to have for navigating life in general.

Now that you know what inductive reasoning is, you can be more aware of when you’re using it and sharpen your logical reasoning skills.

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Chris Kolmar


Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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