Friday, December 2, 2011

Are Your Mental Models on the High or Low Road?

Peter M. SengePeter Senge - Image via WikipediaBy Stephen Hager

Peter Senge, in his "The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization" (1990), describes mental models as "deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures of images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action."

Mental models have profound impact on how we view, react to and respond to the world; they shape our decisions, relationships and quality-of-life. They affect us on all levels - personal, social, professional, organizational, national and global.

My purpose is to raise your level of awareness of what mental models are and how they operate. Practical neuroscience principles and tools help you challenge, change and manage your mental models for a better, more peaceful and less stressful life.

Personal Observations

- Mental models are stored information and emotional imprints of how your brain perceived and remembered direct personal experiences, as well as information learned from a third party or indirect source like the media.

- Models that yield harmful outcomes to you and/or others are good candidates for examination and changed thinking.

- Formed over time from accumulated information, they may also be developed quickly and deeply depending on their importance and emotional impact.

- Most people are unaware of their models, where they came from and their effects.

- They are subtle and challenging to identify and describe.

- They seem to operate in a "back room" or subconscious part of our brain.

- Our models tend to get stronger over time as human nature wants to be "right" about its opinions.

- They may or may not be verifiable through direct experience or independent observations from integrous people.

I believe the core question is "how well do my mental models serve me and others," rather than "are my mental models right or wrong?"

There is no right way of taking in and processing sensory information because everyone perceives and interprets information differently. A group of people agreeing on something doesn't make it true; the process merely bonds the group around something they hold to be true. Needless arguments, and even wars, ensue due to differences of opinion about mental models.


These everyday life situations give you a grasp of what mental models look like; each pair contains differences of mindset for illustrative purposes. As you look them over, ask yourself which ones might serve you and others best, rather than deciding on what may be correct or in error.

The purpose of this exercise is to shift your focus to a "high road" or positive perspective for evaluating mental models. Hopefully, these examples will stimulate your thinking to write down your mental models that serve you well or poorly.

Low Road: Good ideas for innovation are drying up and there is limited opportunity for me to prosper.
High Road: Good ideas for new products, technology and services are endless and infinite.
Low Road: We live in a competitive world of scarcity.
High Road: We live in a world of boundless opportunity where situational cooperation is possible.
Low Road: Girls do poorly in math and science.
High Road: Anyone can learn what interests him or her, when in a supportive environment.
Low Road: You can't trust people who look, act and speak a certain way.
High Road: There are trustworthy and untrustworthy people in all walks of life.
Low Road: In this economy, no one will interview me, much less, hire me.
High Road: I have transferable skills and positive traits that some employer is looking for.
Low Road: I can't trust myself behind the wheel due to my driving record and what my spouse says.
High Road: A refresher course will make me a safer, more dependable and better defensive driver.
Low Road: I can't learn new things because I made poor grades and my teacher said I was stupid.
High Road: My brain has infinite capacity to grow, get stronger, learn quickly and make great decisions.
Low Road: It's unlikely I'll live beyond 73 because of my family health history.
High Road: Good health practices and a positive mental attitude will increase my quality-of-life and perhaps add years to my life span.

In conclusion, mental models are what we believe and hold to be true about life. They are our "software programming" that drives thinking, opinions and behaviors. There is always an outcome from every mental model, although they may not be obvious. People vehemently agree or disagree on the truth of their mental models.

The defining moment for challenging a mental model occurs when the focus shifts to the desired outcome. Clarity can best be achieved by examining gaps between what is desired and the outcome that actually occurs. This is the only way I know to break the endless cycle of defending and attacking mental models.

Stephen Hager is a lifelong learner, scientist, author, speaker and teacher. Along with Deanna Phelps, he is the co-creator of brain-based human development products. Their goal is to help people live better and more peaceful lives through the "power within."

Since 1992, Deanna and Stephen have been developing practical neuroscience solutions for better communications, clearer thinking, faster learning, higher productivity, stress management and creative problem solving.

Everything they have learned from 20 years of research and working with people is incorporated in the comprehensive and individualized Brain PathWays 14-page report. For a daily dose of practical neuroscience tips, visit and sign up for Free Daily Messages From Your Brain.

Please feel free to share this article as long as the author resource information is included. C 2011 The Hadron Group, Inc. All rights reserved

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