Understanding Mental Models and how to improve our experiences

October 25, 2019
min read
Understanding Mental Models and how to improve our experiences

Table of contents

Mental models are frameworks that give people a representation of how the world works. They allow you to view the world through different lenses and help find solutions to problems that might be out of your personal sphere of experience. Everyone has their own way of looking at the world, people’s understanding of their environment (or any part of it) is made up of their knowledge, beliefs, experiences and perceptions, and as such is affected by that person’s political, economic, social and cultural backgrounds. Sometimes looking through a lens makes things a bit clearer and gets individuals closer to making that decision.

Mental models can help us think beyond our own personal experience and provide a kind of mental “shortcut,” making it easier, faster, and more efficient to find solutions for problems. Albert Einstein said, “To break a mental model is harder than splitting the atom.” Defining a mental model in such a broad way creates additional implications for the use and understanding of the concept. Phillip Johnson-Laird (a professor at Princeton University's Department of Psychology) pointed out that this means that each individual mental model is only one of a number of possible models which could be, and are used in a particular context.

Our minds are very good at simulating mental models of our immediate physical reality. Things get harder when we start thinking about abstract systems. Sometimes we can see a problem and if we see it in the context we learned it we will recognise it but seeing it in a different context we might not recognize it. This means that “two people with different mental models can observe the same event and describe it differently because they've noticed different details”

To start recognising the problems, progress your decisions and the way of looking at one’s issue by replacing heuristic with long-time goals using strategic ways to improve your experiences. Be conscious of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, try to reduce your mistakes by recognizing the blind spots.

What are blind spots?

We all have blind spots, they are weaknesses we should combat. Remove blind-spots to improve problem-solving. A good example here would be power plants vs environmental activists.

A power plant is interested in generating electric power with the help of one or more generators which converts different energy sources into electric power by using primary sources of energy, such as coal. Coal emits a large amount of CO2 over the course of its lifetime.  An environmental activist sees the impact of climate change because of the air pollution from coal-fired power plants that is linked with asthma, cancer, heart and lung ailments, neurological problems, acid rain, global warming, and other severe environmental and public health impacts. If you look at it from both perspectives, none of them are wrong, but neither of them are able to come up with a sustainable idea on a long run that can benefit both parties. Learning the basics of the other disciplines would lead to a more versatile understanding that would allow for better initial decisions.

The example above is linked closely to two biases, Hindsight bias and Confirmation bias that play an important role on how people look at things.

What are Hindsight and Confirmation biases and how do they impair our ability to draw the right conclusions? 

Confirmation Bias in Mental Models - People see what they want to see and disregard the rest, they tend to favor information that confirms their previously held beliefs and discontinue evidence that does not conform.  When we are presented with facts we tend to pick the ones that we think suits us the best, whether they are true or not.

The British government was the first to use onboard radar to detect enemy planes. No matter how dark it was outside, the Royal Air Force pilots were able to spot incoming planes on their display and shoot them down. The bad guys had no idea how the British could see their planes sneaking through the nighttime sky, but to the British, this was a war-winning technology. They didn’t want to give up their technology so the best thing was to lie. They created a campaign that linked eating carrots with better vision, it was rubbish science but hey... it worked. Both the British and Germans believed it, and funny enough we still believe the lie some 75 years later.

Hindsight Bias in Mental Models

Hindsight bias is the inclination to see events that have already occurred as being more predictable than they were before they took place. They help us become less accountable for our decisions, less critical of ourselves, and over-confident in our ability to make decisions.

This is such a true example. When people are wrong about the outcome of an event, but claim they knew it was going to go the opposite way to which they originally stated. You usually hear this at a wedding “ I knew it from the moment I met them, they were meant to be”. But as soon as separation occurs the same person will come back saying “The signs were there, they should have seen it coming.”

As a bystander very often you will end up ignoring that person and letting them make yet another mistake instead of pointing it out. This mistake if not pointed or if not picked up by one can lead to a world of habit.

Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit, said ” habits are not born but created. Every bad, good or insignificant habit starts with a psychological pattern called a “habit loop.” Habit-forming and breaking can be quite closely linked. Commitment (a person characteristic) and a strategy (what you bring to the situation) are key.

Habits are routine behaviours that we repeat with nearly unconscious regularity. Psychology more clearly defines them as a fixed way of thinking, feeling or willing acquired through repetition. Everyday habits drive our success or keep us from it. Do challenge and adversity keep you from persisting toward your goals? If so, there is a reason. Keep at it and success will follow. - More on habits here.

Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken…At my age, I can’t change any of my habits. I’m stuck. But you will have the habits 20 years from now that you decide to put into practice today. So I suggest that you look at the behaviour that you admire in others and make those your own habits, and look at what you really find reprehensible in others and decide that those are things you are not going to do. If you do that, you’ll find that you convert all of your horsepowers into output.

Warren Buffett

Back in 2009 Phillippa Lally, Cornelia H. M. van Jaarsveld, Henry W. W. Potts & Jane Wardle investigated the process of habit formation in everyday life. They had 96 volunteers that chose an eating, drinking or activity behaviour to carry out daily in the same context for 12 weeks. 66 days later, a simple habit was in place and on automatic pilot. But as the research shows, it could go as long as 8 and a half months for more complicated habits to take hold.

Another good example is the 21 days of task completion experiment.  In 1960’s book called Psycho-Cybernetics, Maltz, a plastic surgeon noticed his patients seemed to take about 21 days to get used to their new faces. Maltz did not find that 21 days of task completion forms a habit.

To change habits and develop new frameworks loop learning is required.

From the perspective of organizational learning, the development of sustainable learning ability of (key parts of) the organization is a prerequisite to survive and succeed in increasingly dynamic and complex environments. Read this research paper from the Maastricht University, Faculty of Economics and Business Administration, on Circular organizing and triple-loop learning.

What can we do to improve our experiences?

  • Learn from our own experience - use a checklist
  • Learn from other people’s experiences - either by watching or communicating
  • Engage in reading - find inspirational books/podcasts/etc

Name your mental models, either constructive or destructive, and write them down.

  • Constructive thinking refers to diverse higher-order mental activities involved in the creation, updating, and maintenance of cognitive representations of the external world.
  • Creative Destruction refers to the process where capitalistic markets result in a perpetual turnover where newer and better ideas, products, processes, and organizations replace (destroy) older ones. - Don’t get outdated

I’m a great believer in solving hard problems by using a checklist. You need to get all the likely and unlikely answers before you; otherwise, it’s easy to miss something important.

Charlie Munger

Keeping checklists tend to be important in the mental model area.

Charlie Munger is a big believer in the use of a checklist and is a fan of Atul Gwande’s book The Checklist Manifesto. Checklists are a foundational part of systems that can help people identify dysfunctional thinking and bias.On the long run, checklists are useful for solving memory issues and for raising the activation energy of making mistakes in routine procedures. Solving problems by approaching them from a new perspective can be scary and breaking your patterned routines looks sometimes impossible. To do this you need to ask questions, be observant, curious and inquisitive, open-minded to new possibilities. Suspend judgement and always lean to see things from all the angles.

Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 percent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not truth, but utility.

Yuval Noah Harari

Every person should want to improve, develop and continue developing mentally to the close of physical life not perambulate.

Those who understand more of them and understand them well [principles / mental models] know how to interact with the world more effectively than those who know fewer of them or know them less well.

Ray Dalio

Learn a mental model every day/week/month. There’s no denying that we are, indeed, creatures of habit. The more you master a single mental model, the more likely it becomes that this mental model will be your downfall because you’ll start applying it indiscriminately to every problem. What looks like expertise is often a limitation.

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