Weeding Out Our Defective Mental Models

I think the single most important thing that we can do is to recognize that we do not live in a real world. We live in a construct, and we made it. That’s actually a hugely liberating concept because if what we live in is THE reality, then we’re stuck. There’s nothing we can do about it. Grin and bear it. But if what we’re living in is A reality, then there’s a lot we can do about it. We can deconstruct the parts of it that are not working, that we don’t like, and build it up again.”

Those are the words of Srikumar S. Rao from an episode of The Greater Good podcast. If you think they sound a little new-agey, mystical, or excerpts from the next sequel to The Matrix, try this scenario on for size.

We’re at a high school football home game and our team is playing an old rival. Fans of the opposing team are out in force. There are only four seconds on the clock. The visiting team is down by one, but they’ve just scored a touchdown. If they kick a field goal, they tie. Instead of kicking, they go for a two-point conversion and win the game by one.

Every spectator in the stands witnesses the same event, but our individual experiences vary greatly depending on our mental models. If we’re from the winning team’s school, we may find ourselves in a giddy, celebratory mood. If we’re from the losing team’s school, we may fixate on a “bad” referee call and think our team was robbed. If we’re from neither school, we may find ourselves thrilled to have witnessed an exciting game.

Which Reality is True?

In the book, Are You Ready to Succeed? : Unconventional Strategies for Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life, based on the popular “Creativity and Personal Mastery” course taught at Columbia Business School, Rao invites us to explore our mental models of the world and how they affect every aspect of our lives.   

We have mental models about everything: whose team should win, which political party is right, who makes the best smartphones, how we should be treated at work, how we should be treated at home, what kind of car we should own, what we need to do in order to be successful, etc.

From a practical standpoint, these mental models help us make sense of our world. We couldn’t get through a day without them. We’re in widespread agreement about the meaning of red and green traffic lights. We pick up other mental models from our parents, siblings, peers, the media. Some we consider before adopting, others we pick up without questioning.

The problem isn’t that we have these mental models and use them all the time but that some of them do us more harm than good, leading to stress, anger, frustration, and even depression.

Rao suggests that the way to begin replacing our harmful mental models is to recognize that our perception of the facts on which they’re based is not the only one available to us.

“All persons perceive the world differently.

“We start to see that if others can have different world-views, then we, ourselves can change ours. And if we can change our perceptions, then what does that say about what we have always thought of as our true reality?”

Rao taught his course at a business school because several mental models that are most toxic to our individual and collective happiness at work and at home are baked into our economic system.

The corporate world is structured around improving quarterly profits against the year-ago quarter. If we work for a corporation, using the mental model that meeting or beating that quarterly number is our sole objective, something over which we have little control because of the infinite number of factors involved, we create for ourselves a world of constant stress and fear.

If we focus instead on simply working to bring about the causes and conditions to meet those numbers, we can let go of the outcome, enjoy the journey, and, paradoxically, improve our odds that we’ll achieve those numbers.

The Journaling Approach

We don’t question our mental models because our habitual responses to circumstances become so ingrained over time that we think it’s just the way we are. Rao asks us to write them down and track our self talk to get an idea of what’s really happening in the world according to us.

Once we write down the mental models that generate dis-ease in our lives, we can begin to analyze whether or not they’re the best available perception of the facts. If we can come up with another plausible mental model based on the same set of facts, we can remove the sources of dis-ease in our lives one mental model at a time.

In response to getting cut off in traffic, for example, we might think of the offending driver as an insensitive, entitled jerk, honk at him, flip him the bird, maybe even ride his back bumper. Or… we might think of him as a concerned father who, having learned that his son was involved in an automobile accident, is rushing to the hospital to be at his side.

Either mental model conforms to the facts of the situation as we know them. But the first interpretation raises our blood pressure, the second, a sense of compassion.

Since weeding out our defective mental models in favor of models more conducive to our well-being could actually do more harm than good if left to trial and error, Rao offers some expert guidance. The benefits of many of the suggested models are supported by neuroscience and psychological studies. More important, most of these models have been proposed by leading philosophers and spiritual leaders and field tested for millennia.

“All I have done is to put their teachings in a cloak acceptable to educated people in a postindustrial society.”

Ten Minute Exercise

To test whether you’re a candidate for Rao’s program, see if you subscribe to the “if…then” mental model of happiness described in his Ted Talk “Plug Into Your Hard-Wired Happiness.”

Slight cheat: It runs 18:13, but there’s an option to view it in a little over 9 minutes if you use the 2x speed option.

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.