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Mental Models

 Saturday, March 15, 2014 


Mental models are our internal representations of reality.

Mental models give each of us our own unique perspective of the world.

Any time you're solving a problem, you're relying heavily on your own mental models. In order to avoid some of the pitfalls in problem solving, you must be aware of the limitations that are inherent in your own mental models.

The Assertions of Mental Models Theory:

  • Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations.
  • Experimental data in cognitive psychology suggest that humans reason and solve problems through the use of internal representations that can be mentally scrutinized and processed.
  • Reasoning depends on mental simulations of events through the use of mental models.
  • Compared to the complexities of the surrounding world, mental models are very limited.
  • Mental models are over-simplifications that are the result of the limitations of our working memory.
  • Mental models filter information and this can lead to selective perceptions.
  • The greater the number of mental models that a task elicits, the poorer performance is.
  • The greater the complexity of individual models, the poorer performance is.
  • In multiple mental model problems, reasoners focus on a subset of the possible models. This is often just a single mental model.
  • Flaws in our mental models can lead to erroneous conclusions and irrational decisions.
  • Mental models usually exist below the level of awareness and are often unexamined and untested.
  • As the world changes, the gap widens between our mental models and reality, leading to flawed mental models.
  • Unquestioned mental models will remain unchanged unless they are challenged.
  • The core task for changing flawed mental models is to bring those mental models to the surface and test them.
  • The flaws in mental models may only be recognized when confronted with contradictory information.
  • We can transform our mental models by using our reflective skills to reconcile the differences between our mental models and present reality.
  • We can improve our ability to solve problems by surfacing, testing, and improving our mental models that are closest to our problem.

Unquestioned Mental Models


There are certainly many ways that your mental models can limit your ability to solve your problems. It's important to recognize that you can be susceptible these limitations and the consequences that come with them.

Once you understand the reasons why your mental models are potentially fallible, it's incumbent upon you to determine how you're going to go about questioning your own thinking.

Because your mental models remain fixed until you question them, you'll need to find an approach that gives you the greatest amount of mental agility and flexibility. It stands to reason that your ultimate success or failure may hinge on your ability and willingness to question your own thinking.

The Surrounding World is Always Changing

Unquestioned mental models can certainly lead to problems given the rapidly changing, highly complex, and uncertain world we live in. The world is changing every day whether you realize it or not. Your thinking needs to change along with it.

Solving your problems may be dependent upon your capacity to challenge and target your own unquestioned mental models. Challenging your own thinking can be a lot less painful if you've been doing it all along. I recommend that you keep your mental models up-to-date by using a growth mindset (verses a fixed mindset). Having a growth mindset of continuous learning is the key to growing your mental models to keep pace with an ever changing world.

by Keith Glein, Founder & CEO