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What are Mental Models? The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions

Can you imagine all the time it would take your mind to always start from scratch when making a decision or finding a solution? To solve this, it works through mental models, which are like tools that serve to evaluate a situation and make a decision about it.

According to Greca and Moreira (2001), a mental model is an internal construction formed by a set of laws, guidelines and logical sequences that are used to interpret reality. So, we all use them and they serve a practical purpose.

How do you build a mental model?

Mental models are built through multiple components:

  • Thoughts.
  • Previous experiences.
  • Assumptions.
  • Values.
  • Beliefs.

A priori, this already indicates that each person or group has their own mental models. This can be verified through a simple example: if we ask different people to draw a tree or a house, the results will surely be different. It is because their perception of these objects is different, so the mental models will be too.

While perhaps one of these people imagines the lemon tree in the courtyard of their grandmother’s house and associates it with childhood, perhaps for the other it is the pine trees of a mountain landscape, remembering a trip they once made. In addition to personal experiences, there is influence from society, culture and the context to which we belong.

How do we use mental models?

Mental models are patterns of thought and feelings that draw on previous experiences and serve as guidance. They help us to interpret a situation, to make sense of reality, to make decisions.

The fact that they are patterns means that they are repetitive, so it is important to adapt that one- size-fits-all mental model according to the situation or question that is presented to us. Always appealing to the same commonplace of mental model can lead to a point of blindness.

On the other hand, we must always think of the mental models in interaction. That is, they are not hermetic, but just as they serve to influence, they are also influenced by the context. The mind constantly connects new information with what it already has.

How to make changes from mental models?

Mental models have the enormous advantage of allowing economy of thought. That is, they lead us to appeal to our own constructions and previous knowledge, facilitating action.

However, this can also have a disadvantage: we are always relying on the same thing. That is why it is good to consider that it is necessary to renew our mental models, enrich them and continue building them.

For this, some of the recommendations are the following:

  • First of all, be aware of the advantages that mental models bring us, but also of their limitations. This means that we must always know that we may be lacking elements to analyze a scenario.
  • Faced with the previous point, it is good to be encouraged to ask uncomfortable questions, putting in check the habitual paths of thoughts, through alternative thinking.
  • It is convenient to be clear about the way we think and accept that it is one of the many possibilities. Nobody owns the absolute truth.
  • A very useful tool for finding different points of view to a situation is brainstorming.
  • It is always good to ask yourself what I lose and what I gain.

Examples of mental models

In all areas of life, we ​​apply them, as well as in different areas, from personal to work and organizational. Therefore, as tools for practical use, different proposals were created.

One of them has to do with the 80/20 model. The idea is that, when looking for a solution, 80% of the path and the usual recommendations are taken into account. While the remaining 20% ​​is expected to bring creativity, alternative thinking, and other unusual outlets into play. This is a model that is widely used in the workplace.

Another example is the decision tree or concept maps. Faced with a given situation, drawing the ramifications about the possible scenarios or consequences is useful. This will allow us to contemplate aspects that perhaps we had not imagined.

The greater the diversity, the better

As we discussed at the beginning, mental models work as shortcuts when giving an answer. Therefore, it is important that we always try to nourish ourselves with different sources of information, to have experiences, to approach other opinions.

In this way, our mental models are going to build on multiple voices. Then it will be easier to incorporate different readings or points of view about a situation. It should not be forgotten that mental models are simplified and manageable versions, to which specific information and nuances must be added.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that mental models are constructions. This means that they can change. For well-being, it is important to bet on mental models that are more functional for life.

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