Examples of models: beliefs and mental models

January 1, 2012 by Joshua
in Awareness, Evolutionary Psychology, Models, Nature, Visualization

[This post is part of a series on The Model — my model for the human emotional system designed for use in leadership, self-awareness, and general purpose professional and personal development — which I find the most effective and valuable foundation for understanding yourself and others and improving your life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

My past two posts on examples of models showed visual models — maps and representations of the Earth. Such examples illustrate how models work because they are easy to see, but don’t capture the subtlety of distinguishing models from what they represent. Mental models tend to be more subtle.

Think about the following belief or mental model. You’ve heard it before. Think about what it means and how having it affects your life. Mental model: life is like chessIf you believe life is like chess, you may see it as strategic, following set rules, and with winners and losers. You may feel that to win you should learn the rules better and practice. You might feel you can see the whole game right in front of you. You may have the goal of winning.

Now look at this belief or mental model.

Mental model: life is like surfingIf you believe life is like surfing, you may see life as more fun, with no winners or losers, with no set rules. You might expect that huge forces beyond your control influence you, like an ocean wave, but that you can use them to have more fun or joy.

You may still feel experience will help you improve your life. You probably wouldn’t try to win.

Quite a contrast. Note that nothing changes about life or the world when one person switches their model, but you can imagine behaving differently in the same situation with one model compared to the other.

Do you consider either better or worse? I don’t consider either better or worse in the abstract or in any absolute sense. As usual for any model, its value depends on its purpose. One may serve you best in one situation, another in another.

Now let’s look at another model in another area.

Mental model: carbohydrates are healthyYou’ve heard models like this before. You’ve also heard its opposite.

Mental model: carbohydrates are unhealthyI brought up this pair of models because usually when I hear them, people back them up with what they claim as scientific evidence. The value of a model doesn’t have to depend on accuracy and supporting evidence. Yesterday’s examples, specifically used in sciences, had blatant scientific errors all over them. Yet they fulfilled their purposes, so scientists use them.

Personally, I’ve heard evidence in both directions on carbohydrates and my science training finds the evidence nowhere near conclusive in any direction. I mean you need them to live and usually the dose of something you eat determines its toxicity. For that matter, healthiness is a vague term that depends on context.

When people evaluate other people’s beliefs and models they tend to do so skeptically and critically, while their own they simply act on without a second thought.

In any case, I raised these to models to point out that the evidence backing up one model or other doesn’t determine its value. Large numbers of people disagreeing implies there is no absolute right answer.

As always, how well a model serves its function determines its value. It rarely helps to get bogged down in details or justification beyond that it works for you and your purpose for creating the model.

A common decision people have to make in discussing conflicting models is a) do I want to be right and annoying or b) accept my model’s flaws and not be annoying.

One of the great benefits of recognizing that all models have flaws, including each of yours, is that you get into fewer arguments.

Consider this model. You have felt it before.

Mental model: I'm right. You're wrongPeople rarely express this belief or model out loud, but you’ve felt it. If you feel it in an argument you may dig your heels in and continue to argue. It’s the heart of positional negotiation. At times you feel it you probably sense that if you stated your belief outright you would sound stupid, so you don’t say it, but you still act on it, extending the argument. You may not sense that the other person likely feels the same way.

You may sense you would sound stupid to say it because you know your model is wrong. You know the situation is not as simple as you being right and them being wrong.

Yet you act that way.

That’s part of the insidiousness of models when you don’t recognize them. They influence you anyway.

On the other hand, when you recognize them you can manage and change them. For example, I’ve learned when I find myself arguing, feeling I’m right and they’re wrong to realize they must see things from another point of view.

I’ve learned in those cases to try out this model or belief.

Mental model: I have something to learn from everyoneAdopting this model tends to reduce my arguments and, perhaps counterintuitively, increase my ability to influence the person I disagree with. Even when I am right and the other person is wrong, conversations based on “I’m right. You’re wrong” tend to persuade people less than ones based on “I have something to learn from everyone.” I suspect making my dominant emotion curiosity influences theirs to become so too.

Here is another belief or model you’ve often felt.

Mental model: I can't do x. I'm just not the type.where x could be anything the person wants to do, but hasn’t yet: losing weight, quitting smoking, asking someone out, switching jobs, dressing better, etc.

Hearing someone express such a belief makes me sad. Often, the simple belief you can’t do something makes you unable to do it. You may feel you are right, but perhaps for no other reason than you killed your motivation. Creating your own justification that you control in such absolute terms may stop you from trying.

Just because you can’t do something now doesn’t mean you won’t be able to later. You could equally believe “I can’t do x yet,” which, though equally accurate now, motivates you differently.

You can make the belief “I can’t do x yet” crowd out the belief “I can’t do x” by actively thinking it.

Or how about this belief?

Mental model: If he can do x, so can I!I adopted it some time ago and use it to crowd out the belief that I can’t do something when I know someone somewhere once did.

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