A few weeks ago a family became lost in a corn maze in Massachusetts and called 911 in a panic. Police rushed to the scene and found them, unharmed, just 25 feet from the entrance to the maze. A brief flurry of media coverage resulted, in which the family were generally portrayed as dimwits lacking common sense. But mocking these people obscures the fact that we've all had similar experiences; their predicament was just an unusually literal example of being trapped by a mental model.
Many commenters wondered why the family didn't simply walk through the corn to escape the maze. They could have easily pushed aside the cornstalks, headed for the exterior and rescued themselves. But they didn't think they were in a cornfield; they thought they were in a maze, and while their failure to recognize the difference says something about their crisis management skills, it also says something about the power of mental models. They couldn't simply walk through the corn, because that would involve walking through walls, and that's impossible.
We habitually view the world through a series of mental models that shape our understanding of our circumstances, our relationships and ourselves. And while these mental models are essential tools in allowing us to navigate through life, they can easily lead us astray. Philosopher Alford Korzybski said "A map is not the territory it represents," and a mental model is not the reality it seeks to depict. But we can easily mistake our mental models for reality and apply them inappropriately.
We construct our mental models out of the meaning we extract from experience, and there's inevitably a loss of fidelity as we focus on certain aspects of an experience (while ignoring others), interpret that data, and then conceptualize it as a general principle. And the gap that exists between our mental models and reality will continually increase over time unless we compel ourselves to test our assumptions, gather new data and update our models--which requires consistent effort.
A mental model I held about myself for years was that I was a poor public speaker. I'd get nervous before a presentation or speech, I interpreted my sweaty palms and the pit in my stomach as evidence of my ineffectiveness, and my expectation that I would perform poorly became a self-fulfilling prophecy which, of course, reinforced my mental model.
But while I was getting my MBA I took a public speaking course at Stanford's School of Engineering. The rationale for the course was that engineers are often brilliant technical thinkers whose poor communication skills prevent them from promoting their ideas more effectively, and the methodology was utterly simple: Prepare a short speech or presentation and deliver it to the class each week for ten weeks.
I quickly came to realize that it's easy to improve as a public speaker if you do it often enough, and that I had trapped myself in my own mental model: believing I was a poor speaker led me to avoid speaking opportunities, which prevented me from ever improving. Today I still get nervous before a speech or presentation, but I view that response simply as a manifestation of my desire to do well, not as damning evidence of my ineffectiveness. And I still make plenty of missteps as a speaker, but I view them as correctible mistakes, not as character flaws.
I don't mean to suggest that all our limitations derive from our mental models; we're surrounded by any number of real constraints that can't be altered merely by viewing them from a different perspective. But even in those cases our mental models often amplify those constraints and make them seem more daunting and more powerful than they truly are. And in many other aspects of life the limits we place on ourselves derive from outdated or inappropriately applied mental models. We see solid walls instead of flimsy cornstalks, and we allow ourselves to feel trapped instead of simply walking through the corn.
Photo by Carmelo Speltino. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.