Mental Models: Choosing your reaction

On the weekend, I was witness to an argument in a park in South London. A group of teenagers somehow got into an argument with a woman who was sat adjacent to them at a picnic table. I don’t know what was said initially and only realised that an argument was starting as people’s voices started to get louder. After a few minutes a woman came over and spoke to the teenagers:

She started to explain that their language was unacceptable, to which they responded that the woman had “called them a….’

She went on to explain that you can’t control what someone says to you but you can choose how you react.

You can choose how you react

This concept is something that I have come across before, it’s a principle that I believe in – but why do so many people find it so difficult to follow – me included?

I’ve been reflecting on this concept of ‘choosing your reaction’ and wrestling with how you do that.

The work I have done on the OODA Loop suggests that the key is in the orientation phase of the decision-making cycle, specifically, it’s part of the mental models – your mental constructs for how you view the world. I’ve written about this and delivered a TEDx talk on the subject and I am amazed at how frequently problems and conflicts come back to this issue. 

The best way I can describe a mental model is to explain one that I was taught by my parents. When I was at school my parents taught me to work hard. The model of ‘hard work leads to success’ is one that exists in my head. It’s a useful one but not in every circumstance. If you try and build a business which solves a problem that no one is willing to pay for, it doesn’t matter how hard to you work, you’ll still be unsuccessful. In this example, working hard is irrelevant.

We love to think that hard work is all it takes and I wish it were true but it doesn’t always work. As a mental model, it’s attractive, inspiring and very easy to understand but it is not always appropriate and it does not lead to success for everyone. It is not a rule or a law.

You can work hard in the gym, lifting big weights or running long distances. You will probably have an impact on your physique. But a simple focus on exercise is not enough, diet is an enormous part of the body composition equation.

You simply can’t outrun/out-lift a bad diet.

Building Mental Models

Mental models and thinking patterns are developed and nurtured by the material you take onboard.

A recent article by Chet Richards explained how John Boyd (creator of the OODA Loop) used to read broadly to ‘nourish’ his mental models. Chet goes on to explain all the other areas that Boyd studied creating this graphic below.

The article cites another Quartz article on Elon Musk which explains that Elon’s success comes from more than just his work ethic.

In the same way that a poor diet will lead to poor athletic performance, if you don’t ingest material that positively shapes your thinking – you will limit your ability to orientate yourself for success.

This has more to do with why Musk has been successful than his work ethic.

The problem is that we understand ‘hard work’, we know what it looks like. Understanding mental models and ‘orientation’ is much harder to grasp. It is about learning which is often confused with education.

Seeking Advice

Imagine you’re at a crossroads in your life and you want to some advice. You have a choice between asking Sarah and Mark.

Sarah reads broadly. She has read over 10,000 books and watched less than an hour of reality TV. Mark doesn’t read. He relies on his experience to provide advice and spends his spare time watching reality TV.

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Whose advice would you rather have?

I appreciate that the example is simplistic but it makes the point.

Sarah is better able to orientate herself towards the future. She is proactive in her learning allowing her to build and break her mental models for the situations she faces. Mark is reliant on his experience which significantly limits his ability to orientate to his future challenges.

In my humble opinion, we over-value experience and under-value learning.

We also confuse learning with formal education believing that if you haven’t done a training course in something, you can’t really become an expert. This is nonsense. Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game explains this concept using the story of Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics Baseball Team who were chosen using statistical analysis when everyone else was picking players based on their experience.

This scene from the film shows Beane being confronted by a Scout with years of experience who is dissatisfied with the Berne’s statistical approach. It makes the point that learning based on what works is more valuable than simply experience alone.

Learning is a lifelong activity.

It is done by ingesting high quality information – books, documentaries and podcasts.

The internet has taken humanity into the information age.

It has given us the opportunity to access more information than we can possibly manage.

It has the potential to take us into the age of wisdom provided we don’t waste it playing CandyCrush!

Building and Breaking Mental Models

If you can understand your mental models, you can understand your automatic thinking patterns and begin to work out why you behave in a certain way. The ability to make/break habits or change your own behaviour is one of the most valuable skills a person can develop.

Loosing weight, building relationships, managing conflict – the keys to these skills are wrapped up in our mental models, the way that we think.

The challenge is spotting them. Like an invisible lens that covers your eye – you can’t see them but they are there – and the impact they have dictates every decision you make.

The diagram below is my attempt to explain something that happens so fast, and so intrinsically, you don’t even know it.

Let’s say an event happens, something negative. Someone says something unpleasant to you – perhaps like the woman in the story. The reaction you have is almost instantaneous and it’s usually either positive or negative.

A positive reaction is one that you can reflect on and and be happy with, a negative reaction is one where the long-term consequences are negative.

The reaction of the boys to what the woman said to them will have been an amalgamation of all the boxes in purple which in turn affect our judgement and perception of events. The lens through which we view events leads to our reaction – positive or negative.

Sometimes we have mental models that are deeply flawed and of little value. These cause us to have reactions that lead us to behave in a way that doesn’t benefit us in the long-term or cause us emotional turmoil.

I could write an entire article on ‘flawed models’ but I think it is the subject of a seperate article, so I’ve included a few below just to give you a sense of what I mean.

People often believe the following yet the evidence is completely contradictory.

The World is Fair

This is one that our parents and society embed within us. You can tell people who believe it when they say things like ‘that’s not fair’. The simple fact of the matter is that he world is not fair, no one said it was. We live in uneven societies with an uneven spread of resources. It is admirable to try and make it fairer and I do believe that this is a worthy pursuit but the simple fact is that it isn’t yet and we’ve got a long way to go before we get close to it. By the way, if you’re reading this and you were born in the developed world – you won. You’re one of the few people in the world with access to clean water, food and reliable healthcare. Remember this, next time someone cuts in front of you in Pret.

The Good vs Evil Narrative

This is one of the strongest narratives that exists and it drives humanity to conflict time and time again. We embed this narrative in our children and reinforce it every day in the way we act and the way we behave.

My three year old daughter watches a lot of Disney films. In all of them, there is usually a character who is ‘evil’, Jaffar in Aladdin, Ursula in the little mermaid and the stepmother in Cinderella. There is never an explanation for why they behave in this way, they’re just evil.

But the world and people are more complex than that. In this brilliant video about her life as a CIA deep-cover operative Amaryllis Fox explains that ‘everyone thinks they’re the good guys and that they’re (in the) right’.

The behaviour of a jihadist or a terrorist, while incomprehensible to us, is entirely logical and justified to them. They are behaving based on the mental models that have been created through their collective experience, perception and judgment.

This may seem warped to us but it is logical to them.

The Good vs. Evil Narrative is used to justify wars and conflict. It is easy to kill people. It’s much harder to understand them.

The World is in Decline

This sense that ‘things are getting worse’ and that the world is in decline is a common narrative. People look to the past with rose tinted spectacles as if it was some magical place where the young respected their elders and the local bobby tipped his hat to you in the street. It’s nonsense and the science proves it. As Phil Harvey writes in the Huffington Post..

Life expectancy, perhaps the most objective indicator of human wellbeing, has been rising dramatically. When people live longer it means they have more of life’s necessities, and are freer from disease and fatal violence. A few hundred years ago, the average human lived less than 30 years. When I was born, my life expectancy, right here in the U.S., was 63. Babies born today can expect to reach the age of 79, a 25 percent improvement, and more than three times the average life-span in Julius Caesar’s time. Worldwide, including all the poorest countries, life expectancy at birth has gone from 46 years in the 1950s to 70 years today. Adding 24 years to the longevity of our species in a mere 60 years is remarkably good news.

Despite food shortages in some places, there’s more food for everyone today than ever before. For most of human history the daily struggle for food dominated life. People rarely had enough to eat. But even as the world population climbed to 7 billion, daily food supplies per person have gone from 2,250 calories a day in 1960 to 2,800 in 2002. The English, who survived on 2068 calories a day in the late 19th century, consume 3412 today. In India, calories per capita were below 1700 as recently as 1950. Today, the figure is 2459. For comparison, consider the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommendations: 2000-3000 calories per day for adult men; 1600-2400 for adult women. In many countries, including the U.S., poverty is now characterized by too much food rather than too little.
The world’s wealth has increased enormously. For tens of thousands of years humans existed at bare subsistence, on the equivalent of $400 or $500 per person per year (in 1990 dollars). But wealth skyrocketed worldwide, starting around 1800 with the Industrial Revolution, and growing with the widespread use of electricity; it was $1500 per capita in 1913 and $10,700 in 2010. Deprivation has not been eradicated, of course, but this kind of economic growth is new to human history. In the U.S., where income per capita zoomed from $5300 in 1913 to $48,112 today, large numbers of Americans are still classified as poor, but everyone’s living standards have improved markedly. Surveys show that 83 percent of the poor say that they have enough to eat; 63 percent have cable or satellite TV; 80 percent have air conditioning; 43 percent have Internet access. But instead of celebrating this progress, we’re inclined to find things wrong with it. 
There is much less violence than there used to be. Harvard’s Steven Pinker, who has researched this subject exhaustively, recently concluded that “today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species’ time on earth.” Wars used to kill millions; now the numbers are way down. In World War II, U.S. forces wiped out hundreds of thousands of civilians as part of our military strategy. Now we pay reparations for accidentally killing civilians. Not long ago witches were burned at the stake, slavery and public hangings were commonplace. Cats were burned alive for entertainment. Those practices are gone for good.
What are we to make of the fact that good news is all around us, but we determinedly dwell on the not-so-cheerful? Some blame attaches to politicians, who want us to be afraid of unseen dangers so they can protect us, and some attaches to the media, which revel in violence because it draws eyeballs.
But we seem eager to embrace the dark side. Rather than being glad we lead more comfortable lives than our parents or our grandparents did, we tend to grouse that things are worse than they were last year, or last week.

Mental Models

The teenagers in my story at the start of this article will have reacted to a threat based on their mental models. These will have been moulded by the people around them, their parents and their friends. It’s not a behaviour that they’d have been born with – it is one that they’ve been taught. The woman that interjected was trying to get them to understand that they can chose their own reaction.

Understanding behaviour is about understanding Mental Models

If you can understand your ‘lens of experience’, you can make a choice about how you react in any circumstance. The ability to chose one’s reaction to any situation is the key to long-term happiness and success, however you chose to define it.


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