Mental Models: What Are They?

At some point in your business career you’ll likely hear management types discussing mental models and the positive or negative effects these models can have on teams. To the uninitiated, this can sound confusing. In the management world, the mental model definition refers to an individual’s inherent frame of reference or experiences that color how that person perceives the world around them

In this article we’ll look at the origin of mental models and how a better understanding of mental models can help to change your perspective and help you make better decisions.

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What is a Mental Model?

The key to understanding a mental model is to first understand its purpose. Let’s start with some basic comments about models in general. If you think about it, a model is simply a representation of some sort of real-world entity. For instance, a fashion model displays clothing and how it looks on a body. A Hot Wheels Corvette is supposed to be a pint-sized example of that classic automobile. Now, does the size 0 dress fitted for a professional model precisely match how it looks on someone who possesses different bodily dimensions? Or does the Hot Wheels Corvette have 300+ horsepower under the hood? Absolutely not! However, it is very useful to have shared mental models act as a frame of reference even if the real-life experience rarely matches the replica.

Mental Model Examples:

What are some examples of mental models? Here are a few common phrases you may not even think of as mental models. Though, they are indeed examples of mental models:

  • Winners never cheat, and cheaters never win: This model tell us to always err on the side of honesty, and that this leads to better outcomes
  • If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you can’t: This model tells us that your mindset plays a big role in whether you’ll be successful in any endeavor
  • Better safe than sorry: This model tells us to proceed with caution, because it’s generally best to avoid a downside scenario even if it means giving up some perceived upside

The theory of mental models applies the concept of models to all interpretation. Since no person can hold physical entities in the mind, nor truly or fully understand any concept in the exact same manner as any other person, every understood concept is necessarily based upon a mental model. In his 1971 book World Dynamics, esteemed MIT systems scientist Jay Wright Forrester posited that “man acts at all times on the models he has available. Mental images (themselves) are models… Anyone who proposes a policy, law, or course of action is doing so on the basis of the model in which he, at the time, has the greatest confidence.” Moreover, because mental models are so ingrained in the process of thought, most individuals aren’t even aware of their existence, creating inherent biases and blind spots for anyone seeking to address situations of any type. 

Mental Models Definition

So, one mental model definition might be “an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between various parts, and a persona’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences.” This is the definition of mental models broadly available on the web. But let’s dig a little deeper.

How Can a Shared Mental Model Lead to Better Decisions?

One of Forrester’s students at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, Peter Senge, would build upon the discipline of mental models and found the MIT Center for Organizational Learning. Senge furthered the concepts pioneered by Forrester to define best practice learning models for organizations by highlighting the need to account for mental models in decision making. in his seminal publication The Fifth Discipline, Senge explores the concept of the “learning organization,” which is driven by five key disciplines:

  1. Personal mastery – continually refining personal vision, developing patience, and seeking objective reality
  2. Understanding of mental models, or as he calls it, the deeply ingrained assumptions or generalizations that guide us
  3. Creating a shared vision – or, the practice of finding shared pictures of the future that foster commitment and alignment. (Developing a shared mental model)
  4. Team learning, which is driven by communication among members of a team to genuinely think through problems
  5. “Systems thinking” – which is his Fifth Discipline that integrates the other four

Common and Useful Models

Mental models permeate every discipline of life and are frequently cross-disciplinary. In universities, knowledge is categorized and frequently Balkanized based on the whims of esoteric department heads and arcane distinctions. In real-life, no major problem, task or issue is ever confined to a single silo, and this is where common mental models can be leveraged to apply to the distinct and complex scenarios that arise at work or home.

Many of the most common business mental models have become common knowledge across the globe. Earlier in this article, we reference common phrases that in fact, can be thought of as mental models. But most people, even if they haven’t completed an academic course in economics, are at least tangentially familiar with such economic mental models as Economies of Scale, Game Theory, and Supply and Demand. When something is expensive, most individuals are comfortable reasoning that there must be a high demand for it and limited supply. It’s an intuitive and generally useful mental model that tends to predict prices.

Other common models that you may have heard of include:

  • The 80/20 rule – you can get 80% of the job done by focusing on the 20% of the tasks that matter the most. Alternatively, in a business context, 80% of your sales will come from 20% of your customers
  • 10/10/10 rule – before you make a decision, consider how you’ll feel about it 10 minutes from now, 10 months from now, and 10 years from now
  • Be outcome blind – a good outcome doesn’t always result from a good decision. Focus on following a good decision-making process, not on the outcome of the last decision (which is often due to external factors or chance)
  • Pyramid principle – when communicating, start with the answer first, then group your supporting rationale into some main arguments, and logically order your supporting ideas for each of your main arguments

Broadening Of Thought

Mental Models are also excellent ways to encourage a broadening of thought. The original model – The Scientific Method – is proof enough of this. Science itself is filled with theorems and hypotheses themselves that could be described as mental models. What is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but a way of looking at the world and a model to apply to future scenarios?

Still, the most important mental model is always the next mental model. What would have happened had Einstein accepted the scientific status quo? Our understanding of the universe today would not be the same and space flight may never have occurred. Mental models are merely tools to be used and it should always be the goal of every craftsman – whether a blacksmith or a businessman – to find the best tools, and if needed, create new tools to accomplish the job. Use mental models, but don’t become limited by only existing mental models!

Mental Models in Action

One of the most famous mental models of the 21st century is the now debunked “they’ll greet us as liberators” theory that largely led to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rather than allowing facts on the ground to dictate any need for military action, elements within the Bush administration took select information and molded it to fit a predetermined narrative. A large part of the administration was still relying upon an antiquated mental model built around their shared experience in the previous H.W. Bush administration, which proved to be no longer be applicable in a new geopolitical reality.

The ultimately dismissed U.S. Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, would best characterize the poor application of the legacy mental models by lamenting the existence of known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns that torpedoed the military offensive and subsequent rebuilding plans. Had Rumsfeld and his peers only acknowledged those pernicious unknown unknowns, they may have been able to update their mental models preemptively to avoid subsequent calamity.

Concluding Thoughts

Mental models affect the way you look at the world – whether in business or your personal life. Now that you are aware of what a mental model is, think about which mental models you utilize in your daily life. Are they leading to growth or harm? With intentional practice, you can harness the power of mental models to help you excel in your problem-solving and communication acumen.

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