Mental Models

I recently came across some interesting research on self-theories, the mental models we have about ourselves and others. This research by Carol Dweck of Stanford University, and others, examines how our theories about things like our intelligence and morality impact our behaviors.

For example, some of us tend to see our level of intelligence as a largely fixed attribute, while others see intelligence as something we have the power to change about ourselves. I doubt that most of us have spent much time pondering that question. We’ve simply adopted one perspective or the other without really thinking much about it. It’s just an assumption we make, one with major implications.

For example, Dweck describes a child who breezes through elementary school, making excellent marks with very little effort. The child’s parents and/or teachers praise his success, telling him that he is “smart” or perhaps “gifted”. The child develops a high level of confidence, but that confidence is based partly on the perceived ease of the work. When the child gets a little older and the work becomes more challenging, his mental model is that “easy” equates with “smart” and conversely “difficult” means “stupid” or at least less smart. So instead of rising to the challenge, he resists doing the more difficult work and his academic performance drops.

Dweck’s research has found that when a child is praised for effort instead of ability the child tends to develop the attitude that one can get smarter by working at it. So doing challenging work becomes a means of getting smarter, rather than a threat to one’s abilities. A child with this kind of mental model is more likely to embrace new challenges and work through them.

The issue isn’t which mental model is “true”. There’s truth to be found in both perspectives. Yes, some people have more innate ability than others. And yes, we all need to develop our abilities. Still, one mental model is much more motivating than the other. It’s more useful in terms of helping us learn and achieve.

We all carry around a great many mental models and we probably haven’t given much thought to most of them. Yet, they may have a profound effect on how we behave. They impact the way we interact with people and strive to motivate and lead. Someone who sees intelligence as a fixed attribute will approach hiring and training very differently from someone who sees intelligence as a skill to be developed. A supervisor whose mental model is that most people want to work as little as possible will treat people very differently from someone who assumes that we’re all trying to do our best. Someone who perceives colleagues as collaborators will interact differently from someone who sees colleagues as rivals. Someone who believes that anyone can have a good idea will approach innovation differently from someone whose mental model is that prior experience and expertise are necessary to have useful ideas. The list goes on.

When things aren’t going as we hope or expect, our mental models are one place to look for clues as to why. Are we running into conflicts and miscommunication on our team because people are applying different mental models without realizing it? Have we developed mental models about other individuals—a peer, our child, or our spouse—that are undermining those relationships? (One clue: Do we ever catch ourselves thinking, “They always…” or, “They never…”) Remember, any mental model may have some truth to it and still not be very helpful.

We could probably all benefit from taking some time to reflect on our mental models, and seeing if the ones that we’ve adopted are really taking us where we want to go.

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