We have constructed mental models inside our heads about the world around us, about the people we know, about how things work. Mental models are our mental representations of the real world. Other words that mean much the same as “mental model“ are: assumption, mental box, belief, stereotype, concept, framework. According to Peter Senge, the ability to consciously manage our mental models is one of the five disciplines of a learning organization.
Some mental models work better than others. For example, two decades ago the Soviet Union’s mental model of a national economy is one run through central planning. After seventy years, they learned that central planning does not work. And so they replaced their mental model from central planning to market-based economy: instead of a handful of bureaucrats in Moscow making decisions on the national economy, over a hundred million Russian consumers are now making decisions on what will be produced, and at what quality and price.
According to Gregory Bateson, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.”
It is everyone’s task to always revisit and revalidate one’s mental models. We may be contributing to creating or perpetuating problems, big or small; and we can prevent this if we always check our assumptions, concepts, mental boxes, beliefs, stereotypes, etc.
Take the word “private.” What is our concept of “private”?
How does our concept of “private” square with what has been observed and discovered by ecologists about how the real world works? Ecologists will tell you that:
- Wo/man is part of nature; s/he is part of the “web of life”
- Everything is inter-related; “no man is an island”
- An action or project will always have unexpected, undesired or unintended “side effects”
- Nature is not an unlimited “sink” or unlimited “source”; nature does not give a “free ride.”
A lady demographer friend made a remark I cannot forget: “the sex act is the most private act that can lead to a host of public consequences.” Of course, a baby born will result to a lifetime demand for food, oxygen, natural resources, living space, employment, schooling, public services, etc. contributing to public problems such as resource depletion, pollution, crowding, public expenditure, etc. and also to value creation through services, innovation, etc.
We need to re-examine how our concepts and beliefs square with how nature in fact works. What makes science a successful human endeavor is how scientists keep re-checking and improving their mental models to be ever better representations of the real world.
Failure to continuously learn and improve our mental models, concepts and beliefs will create or perpetuate more problems.
Look at these mental models:
- A private corporation may be operating a factory that discharges waste water into the sewage system (mental model: “Nature is an endless ‘sink’ “).
- A dictator or corrupt president, fearing the end of his power, puts his ill-gotten wealth in a secret bank account (mental model: “My and my family’s benefit above everything else”).
- She recommends disapproval of an office colleague’s proposal, ignoring its merits (mental model: “He cheated once; therefore he will cheat again”).
- A private individual flicks a cigarette stub by the roadside, starting a forest fire (mental model: “I can do whatever it damn pleases me to do”).
- A Hamas fighter’s mental model: “God will reward my martyrdom with paradise.”
- An Israeli soldier’s mental model: “God gave this land to me.”
According to Albert Einstein, “A problem cannot be solved using the same mindset that created it.”
What do you think?
Tags: central planning, einstein, gregory bateson, knowledge management, learning, learning organization, market-based economy, mental model, problems, public versus private, Senge, solving problems, Soviet Union