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Systems modelling
Systems modelling

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2.2 Mental models: implicit and explicit

We all have mental models of the world in which we live. We have mental models of ‘how X will react if I ask her to do a particular job’, of what would be ‘a nice holiday’, ‘what should happen if I turn up the thermostat on this heater’ and so on. Virtually all these models are so taken-for-granted that we do not even realise that they are models, i.e. that they are simplifications of the complexity around us. The significance of these implicit mental models is that they constrain and determine what we perceive in the world about us – how we think about situations, people, organisations and problems. This in turn affects how we act, often with important consequences. Box 1 gives two examples of implicit mental models affecting behaviour.

Box 1 Implicit mental models

Example 1 A friend of mine was an immigrant to Australia in 1950 when she was three years old. She was there until she was twenty four, so all her education was within the Australian system. She was taught that Australian history started in 1770 when Captain Cook discovered Australia. She learnt about the first convict settlements, the first settlers, the explorers who trekked across the outback, opening up trails and discovering Australia. This was the history that all Australian schoolchildren grew up with and it conditioned their mental model of their country. There was no mention of the aborigines, the different tribes and cultures, the genocide carried out by the early settlers and the fact that the aboriginal people had lived in Australia for thousands of years prior to European discovery and settlement. It is no wonder that Australians had a problem with racism and had to painfully correct their own images and understandings of ‘their’ country.

Example 2 Another immigrant to Australia in the 1950s was a Jewish Ukrainian who had survived Stalin's persecution of the Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s, the Ukrainians' persecution of the Jews, the persecution of the Jews and Russians by the Germans, and finally his rejection by Russia on the grounds that all Russians who survived in enemy territory were traitors. When I met him he was, in my view, paranoid. He believed that everyone was out to get him. He would not go out and eat in restaurants for fear of being poisoned. He had made quite a lot of money and rejected all overtures of friendship, especially by women, on the grounds that they were just after his money. His belief that everyone was out to get him, clearly founded in a traumatic personal history, completely dominated all his mental models of others and constrained his life completely.

These examples are comprehensible because you and I are probably not caught in the mental models involved. We can, at least in theory, take the position of a dispassionate observer and see how the complex relationships in which these people lived were poorly represented by their way of thinking about them. But all our conceptualisations of the world are like this, they constrain the way we can think about things. All our categories, our beliefs, ideas, theories are, and have to be, simplifications of the complexity in which we live. The ways in which these implicit mental models constrain us only become apparent when compared to a different model or categorisation or theory. I remember being quite startled when I was told that the Inuit of North America had many different words for snow. Here was a thing (one thing) in my conceptualisation of the world, which another group of people found helpful to divide into many different categories. As another example, there are over 100 different species of grass in the UK although to most of us, a field of grass just looks like a uniform carpet of similarly shaped leaves.

So we all have these implicit mental models of things, people, organisations and so on. Because these models affect our perception of the world they become self-sealing. By this I mean that the mental model dictates the type of information that the person will perceive and that these perceptions will then reinforce the original belief. My paranoid associate in Australia believes that everyone is out to get him and that no one likes him; as evidence he points out that people are not friendly towards him, do not come and visit him and are often argumentative with him. If you knew him you would probably find it hard to like him and would get drawn quite quickly into an argument with him! That's what self-sealing systems are like. And we are all affected by systems of this type all the time – we just do not see them because we are ‘in them’.

At this point you may be following the logic of what is being said but feel rather dubious about some of the grandiose conclusions that are being drawn. Box 2 and Box 3 give more recent examples much closer to our own time and culture that make the same point.

Box 2 An example in education

One well known educational experiment involved an inspector going into a class, testing all the children and communicating to the class teacher which were the exceptional children that he or she had to look out for over the coming year. A year later the inspector returned to the schools in the trial and discovered that the children identified in the earlier tests had indeed excelled and were regarded as being exceptionally able by the teachers involved. However the names of the children communicated to the teachers were not those who had scored highly in the tests! The names given to the teachers were random names from around the middle of the ranking of the children. Their observed improvement over the year was determined by the teacher's perception of them, not due to any latent genius discovered in the tests.

This example illustrates how important are our implicit models of other people. Although most people can see how a teacher's opinion of a pupil could have a major influence on the child's development, they are much less willing to see or understand that their own mental models of members of their family and work colleagues largely determines the quality of these relationships. In practice the quality of people's lives is dominated by the implicit models they hold of those with whom they interact most regularly – and they will have hoards of evidence to persuade you that their models of these people are correct.

Box 3 An example from management

A company organised a day where the Board of Directors and the Management Team were to discuss future strategy for the company. To get things moving the group started by drawing (rich) pictures of the situation as each perceived it. Virtually all the management team's pictures represented the government as the biggest problem to be dealt with. The other Directors were stunned. They pointed out that 50 per cent of the company's income derived directly from government-funded projects and that all the rest of the business was driven by government initiatives that required firms and organisations to comply with environmental legislation! The Directors were successful in helping the management team revise their model of the role of government in the business. With a new model the management were then able to work with the legislation, to build on the projects that were funded by the government and so expand the business very effectively.

The last example explains something of why I have laboured this topic within this modelling pack. One of the significant benefits from any kind of systems modelling activity is that it enables implicit models to be made explicit to some degree. Often, those implicit models that most constrain our thinking, perception and behaviour, are the ones that will benefit from becoming explicit, open to question, discussion and development. By making implicit models explicit people can often find ways out of the traps and difficulties in which they find themselves, and this is one reason why modelling is such an important part of systems work.

The idea of making explicit our implicit models of ‘reality’ is central to understanding the distinction between modern and postmodern outlooks, as explained in Box 4.

Box 4 An aside ‘ reality’ in modernism and postmodernism

The modernist tradition rejected the mythical and religious views of the world and gave rise to science, democracy, liberation movements and a belief in the supremacy of rationality. Within this tradition there was an implicit belief that there existed a given external reality and that the task of all enquiry was to develop a better and better model (or map) of that external reality.

The postmodernist perspective is that the assumption about a pre-given external reality is not valid, especially in the domain of human culture, values, beliefs and organisations. In general, and particularly in these social domains, it is impossible for anyone to have a model of reality that does not constrain their perception in some way. So while postmodernists do not say that there is not an external reality, they would claim that it is impossible to have an unbiased perspective on what it is.


Think of some activities or events with which you are currently involved. Identify an example where you have found yourself acting on the basis of a mental model that you now recognise (or even recognised at the time!) as inadequate, and resulting in a ‘self-sealing’ outcome.


Your answer to this will depend on your experience, but most interactions in organisations can provide examples. Individuals within an organisation often have official or unofficial roles, such as ‘manager’, ‘administrator’ (or, from another perspective ‘bureaucrat’), ‘shopfloor worker’, etc. Each of these roles carries with it certain expected behaviours, and the actual behaviour of an individual is then often interpreted in terms of these expectations. An example is my rather pejorative use of the word ‘bureaucrat’ rather than ‘administrator’. I tend to see administrators as persons who have to have a complex set of rules governing all activities, and to be unable to show any flexibility in interpreting these rules. So, when I want to do something which I suspect does not appear to fit within the given rules, I try to avoid consulting the administrators on the grounds that they are bound to say no, and try to work round them. This sometimes works, but sometimes creates all sorts of unexpected difficulties with other aspects of administration, thereby confirming my prejudices. However, when I have abandoned these stereotypes, and actually consulted some administrators, they have often been able to point out that there are perfectly acceptable and legitimate ways to do exactly what is needed!

Another area of self-sealing models often occurs in gender or racial stereotypes, leading to misinterpretations and prejudice.