05 February, 2012

Thinking across mental models

Mom: Son, it is 7 'o clock already. Get up! You are getting late for school

Son: I don't want to go to school Ma.. The teachers don't like me and all the students laugh at me.

Mom: Son.. that is no reason to skip school. You have to go to school -- besides, you are the Principal of the school!!


I know it is an old joke, but why is it funny (even if it is a PJ)?

The reason why this story is funny is that, out brain does its thinking typically within the framework of what is called, a mental model. The mental model determines what "ground truths" or unchallenged assumptions, will guide our reasoning process. 

The "semantic memory" in our brains is responsible for giving inputs that form these ground truths. The ground truths represent significant concepts relevant to the situation, and relationships among them. 

For instance, in the above story, we would have typically assumed that the Son in the story is a student who has to go to school. 

And when the Mom says that "...you are the principal!!", suddenly this new piece of information brings down the entire model that we had at the back of our mind, and causes it to create a whole new consistent model. Now the Son is the Principal and yes, the Principal is likely to be bothered by the teachers not liking him and the students laughing at him. 

This sudden change in the model and its associated implications unnerves the brain, prompting it to give an emotional reaction. But since the new model essentially has trivial consequences, the emotional reaction that our brain provides is laughter. 

On the other hand, horror stories are also made of sudden changes in mental models. Except in these cases the new mental model that replaces the older one tells about serious implications -- causing the brain to react with terror. 

For instance, there were news stories about what transpired inside the airplane IC814 that was hijacked when it left from Kathmandu to Delhi in December 1999. Some people stood up and walked in the aisle and calmly announced that they are taking over the plane. And a lot of passengers thought that it was a routine security drill. And you can imagine the terror they experienced when they realized that this was for real. 


Our brain builds mental models because it is too difficult (perhaps impossible) to have one global set of ground truths for the entire universe and take into account all of them for arriving at conclusions or explanations. 

For instance, consider that we are watching a cricket match where we see a fielder miss an easy catch. We respond to this by giving typical explanations based on typical assumptions. "Perhaps the sun got into his eye" (and if he is an Indian cricketer), "Indian players are all too-old/complacent/tired/overworked/overpaid/do-too-many-advertisements", etc.  

But, would it be possible that there was a very mild earthquake, too small to be reported, but causing enough disorientation in someone who is looking up at the sky, to make them miss the ball they are trying to catch?

Strictly speaking, it is possible and we should ask for seismographic data for that time and place and study the impact of earthquakes on people looking at the sky and... etc. But, we typically don't go down that path because this explanation is not probable

In fact, we don't even think of this possibility. It is so improbable an event that our mental model would have effectively blocked it out of the set of ground truths that we work on. 

Another major source of mental model change is when we change our emotional dispositions. Our emotional disposition determines our dominant emotional reaction in any given situation. It also determines the kind of explanations we build, in response to observations.

And that is a reason why emotional roller-coasters are so damn exhausting. If we change our emotional disposition in quick succession, each disposition brings with it a mental model, giving us different explanations of the same observations, thereby enormously increasing confusion. And that is also the reason why we find it hard to "think straight" in emotionally charged situations. It is not just the rush of hormones, we do experience semantic confusion in times of emotional turmoil.


Learning to think across different models is an important element of "growing up." 

As children we typically have a single mental model and life appears very simple. In fact, children up until they are about maybe 5 years old find it hard to understand jokes like the above that involve sudden change in mental models.

Thinking across mental models is an important skill to develop. Strictly speaking, every conversation involves understanding the mental model of the other and adjusting our own. Differences in mental models amplify depending on the different experiences that each person in a conversation has. Mental models can vastly differ based on gender, geographic location, community culture, economic status, and so on. 

However, learning and even more importantly, teaching to think across mental models is a very difficult task. Once our deeply held mental model is challenged, our primary reaction is to perceive it as a threat and become defensive. And too much of a pressure to adapt our mental models can leave us emotionally scarred since once our deeply held beliefs break, we do not know what to hang on to and what parts of our lives so far are suddenly on uncertain ground. 

Similarly, if you try to teach someone to think across mental models by challenging their assumptions, they'll only start fighting against you. The more we have built our lives on our assumptions, and the less exposed we are to diversity, the more reluctant we are to anything that challenges them. 

1 comment:

Rakesh K said...

Interesting insight into the thinking process of humans. More of such explanations, theories are described in the book 'Thinking, fast and slow' by Daniel Kahneman.