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WHERE "MODELS" COME FROM

Constant training shapes and refines our "models." A jazz musician or modern artist probably has a very different view of many aspects of the world than, say, a scientist or engineer. Even training doesn’t fully explain our models. Not every musician or engineer will look at the world in the same way. A breakthrough thinker like Albert Einstein might have much more in common with a modern artist than with some of his colleagues in science. Some individual scientists may creatively push the limits; others may work in a well-defined area of study. Some CFOs may be risk averse while others are daring to the point of danger. Their approaches are shaped by their personality (genetics), education, training, influence of others and other experiences.

We can gain insights into our "mental models" by looking at where they came from. There has been a long debate about the influence of nature versus nurture in shaping our thinking. At the moment, it appears increasingly likely that nature, in the form of genetics, plays a significant role in determining who we are. Many of the basic capabilities of the brain, such as language, appear to be predetermined at birth by virtue of the genetics we inherit.

Clearly we are born with some hardware and hard wiring that influences the way we see the world. Mood disorders offer an extreme example of how these chemical and genetic differences can color the way we see the world. While genetic research and pharmaceutical interventions are offering new ways to change the structure and chemicals of our thinking, their exact impact on mental models is unclear. As much as we might like to find one, there is no pill or genetic therapy for changing our mental models, although at some point in the future development of science it may fall within the realm of possibility. There also seems to be considerable flexibility in the human mind in overcoming the limitations of nature.

Genetics appear to provide the fundamental basis of who we are and what we can do, and then experience plays a major role in shaping these capabilities, strengthening some and weakening others. Thus a number of forces of "nurture" shape and reshape our "mental models," including:

  • Education. Our education shapes our mental models very broadly and forms a foundation that molds our world view. A scientist learns to approach the world in a different way than a jazz musician. This broad education is often the least visible force shaping our mindset. We surround ourselves with people of similar background. A liberal arts education aims in many ways to give people a common language and world view from which to operate, so it is very easy for this educational foundation to blend into the environment like a chameleon on a rock. While deepening knowledge in a subject area is one kind of learning, learning about mental models represents a second kind of learning (see sidebar, "A Second Kind of Learning").

  • Training. Related to education is the specific training we receive to deal with transitions or handle new tasks. A computer programmer might learn a programming language, or an artist might learn to work in metal sculpture. This training is more specific and more visible than education, and more easily changed. Still, we often get into a rut in our training that is very difficult to break out of, even when the world around us has changed significantly.

  • Influence of others. We are all influenced by mentors, experts, family and friends. These individuals, their philosophy of life and approach to problems affect us deeply in how we approach our own challenges. We are also influenced by the books we’ve read. For example, a child who grows up reading all of H. G. Wells’ novels might be influenced by this experience to become a scientist. We are influenced by people in our immediate environment—first by parents, friends and teachers and later by supervisors and coworkers—who push us in new directions or encourage us to achieve more, challenging our own views of ourselves. We also are influenced by broader trends in society, as were many people who grew up in the 1960s. Finally, we are influenced by mass culture in a world in which MTV can transfer fashion trends around the globe in a matter of hours.

  • Rewards and incentives. Our mental models and actions are shaped by the rewards we receive for holding them. These rewards can be tangible, such as direct financial gain, or less tangible ones, such as social approval.

  • Personal experience. Some artists and scientists are self-taught. They create their own style through personal experience, which makes it easier to think outside the mainstream. The tradition of apprenticeship is also based on a process of combining learning from both experience and a mentor or expert craftsman.

In addition to the specifics of what we learn in our education, we also develop capabilities for learning how to learn that help us to make sense of our experiences. Our own successes and failures can dramatically shape our view of the world. Personal encounters can have a major impact on how we view life overall or in specific areas. How we cope with mistakes and learn from our successes affects how we approach every new challenge. Severe ordeals, such as imprisonment in a concentration camp or traumatic childhood abuse, may affect our world view throughout our lives. Some people find their worlds crushed and limited by these misfortunes. Others respond by developing a determination and drive that carries them not only across their present hurdles but also to new levels of success.

Today’s experience quickly becomes tomorrow’s theology. This is why generals are often fighting the last war. They have shaped their policies based on their past equipment and military strategy, carefully learning lessons from debriefings on the last battlefield that may no longer be relevant on the current one (although post-mortems can be a valuable source of insights as long as we recognize that the world may change). Experience can be a double-edged sword.

Models for the Moment

Some of our models are very broad, held by members of an entire nation, political party or religious group, while others are very localized and specific. A broader model such as a belief in democracy or communism affects the mental models of followers, influencing their beliefs and behavior as well as the entire structure of society and economic life. Not all our models are on such a grand scale. Our background and philosophical beliefs often affect how we see the world, but we also apply situation-specific models. A fire drill or airplane evacuation routine is an example of a situation-specific model. Whatever our backgrounds, training and experience, we all look for the nearest exit, put on our oxygen mask if it is deployed from the ceiling or inflate our life vests.

In this case, the goal is to give everyone a common model that seems to be best practice in responding to a particular emergency. But when passengers on the flights of 9/11 were faced with a situation that was not on the cards in the seatbacks, they needed to improvise and create a model based on their experience, drawing upon past experiences such as sports, military training, stories or movies.

In many cases, our background and experience determine how we will respond in a particular situation. When Johnson & Johnson made its famous decision to pull its product off the shelves in response to the Tylenol scare in 1982 (when an unknown tamperer laced the capsules with cyanide, killing seven people in Chicago), the company’s actions were based on a firmly embedded set of values embodied in the corporate "credo." It set a course of action that was consistent with its core mental model—that if it put its customers and other stakeholders first, returns to shareholders would naturally follow.

Sometimes our responses to specific challenges ultimately transform our broader models. Consider the long-held opposition to big government by the U.S. Republican party. In the face of terrorist attacks and scandals on Wall Street early in the new millennium, the Republican administration expanded government staffing, budgets and powers to meet these new threats to national economic stability. The proponents of reducing government had actually expanded it. The specific actions, designed to meet the challenges of the moment, ultimately undermined the broader model.

This view of the application of models for the moment is in contrast to approaches such as Meyers-Briggs, which attempts to define a specific individual style of approaching decisions. While the recognition of the different cognitive styles (such as perceptive/receptive, or systematic/intuitive) is an important one, we are not necessarily static in how we apply these approaches. An individual may work through a variety of styles in addressing specific challenges or responding to specific situations.

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