Mental models and the 7Es LO29558

From: Don Dwiggins (
Date: 11/22/02

Replying to LO29398 --

Terje A Tonsberg writes in LO29398:
> I think it is safe to say that mental models can do little to improve the
> understanding of behavior. So why do people bother with mental model
> "explanations."? Well, instead of looking at the mental model approach as
> a mental model, lets throw a quick proposition from a functional point of
> view:

> - using the phrase "mental model" is reinforced by attention,
> publishability, social acceptance, grants etc.

> Does anybody have a mental model explanation for the use of the word
> "mental model" that would be more useful than this functional proposition?

This has been an interesting thread, with many different suggestions as to
that a mental model might be, and whether the concept is useful. It
finally prompted me to go back to the "Fifth Discipline" to see what Senge
might have had in mind. Here's a few quotes from his chapter on the 2nd

   We are coming increasingly to believe that this "slip 'twixt cup and lip"
   stems, not from weak intentions, wavering will, or even nonsystemical
   understanding, but from _mental models_. More specifically, new insights
   fail to get put into practice because they conflict with deeply held
   internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar
   ways of thinking and acting. That is why the discipline of managing
   mental models -- surfacing, testing, and improving out internal pictures
   of how the world works -- promises to be a major breakthrough for
   building learning organizations.

   ... What we carry in our heads are images, assumptions, and
   stories. ... "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a classic story, not about
   fatuous people, but about people bound by mental models. ...

   Mental models can be simple generalizations such as "people are
   untrustworthy" or they can be complex theories, such as my assumptions
   about why members of my family react as they do. But what is most
   important to grasp is that mental models are _active_ -- they shape how
   we act.

It seems that, for Senge, it's not so important what mental models _are_
as what they _do_, and what we should do about them. Apparently, if I'm
aware of a particular mental model that I have, and take care not to
accept uncritically the conclusions it leads me to, and work to adapt,
correct, or abandon it, then I'm practicing the second discipline, and the
model is at worst relatively harmless. (Note here I'm focusing on _my_
mental models; I doubt strongly that one can "work on" anyone else's.)


Don Dwiggins "All models are false, but some are useful" -- George Box, "Statistics for Experimenters"

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