Driven by Our Filters – How Our Mental Models Affect What We Think

March 1st, 2011 | 6 Comments

 We can’t help ourselves. Everywhere we turn; at work, at play, in politics, and in families; people are voicing their opinions about the way the world works, and why we should do things their way. The hard part is that peoples’ views differ widely, with one person’s point of view often being the polar opposite of another’s.

For as long as I have been studying social psychology, I’ve been amazed at how different and subjective peoples’ points of view can be. For example, one client had formed a firm belief that developing social relationships at work will get you fired. This point of view  was keeping him isolated and preventing him from building the relationships he needed to succeed in his job. But he held to it nonetheless. When we explored where this “mental model” might have come from, he described four formative experiences. Two were lessons from his parents; that small talk is a waste of time, and that socializing will distract you from the discipline of working. He had another belief that networking at work  involved selling, and that salespeople were sleazy and dishonest. A fourth foundation of his “no social relationships at work” belief came from hisobservation of three people that regularly lunched together, who were later laid off during an acquisition. From these four interpretations, he formed a hard and fast conclusion that relationships at work were useless and dangerous, and that the key to success was to keep his head down and keep to himself.

 How can people look at the same phenomena and form such different, sometimes dysfunctional conclusions?

One explanation lies in how we interpret our world. We all interpret our experiences through mental models that we have been developing and reinforcing throughout our lives. In order to make sense of our experiences, we create mental models of what is happening to us. We think, “This caused that, therefore I should act in this particular way.”

Once we invent these structures of interpretation, we use them first to organize our experience and then to formulate our points of view.  Later, throught our lives, these mental models serve as filters through which we interpret and act on our world.  The nature of these filters can come from the experiences themselves, from messages we received earlier in life and even from our genetic predispositions.

Our filters appear especially powerfully in areas where there is uncertainty, such as decision making in the workplace or in political beliefs. In the political arena, one person might view the greatest threat to our society as increasing pollution and energy usage, while another might see these as technically solvable, and view terrorism as the major threat. Both are firm in their beliefs and regularly filter-in confirming evidence, and filter-out the contradictory. In polite conversation, we usually don’t get to learn about how each other formed our respective filters. As a matter of fact, we often don’t even know how we formed our own.

Fortunately many of our mental models reflect widely-shared interpretations of reality. But, shared or not, most of us are slaves to our mental models because they are largely unconscious. However we acquired them, our models shape our attitudes and actions. Even when we try to be objective, we end up looking at the world through our personal filters, then coming to conclusions that support them.

A recent article in The New Yorker described how difficult it has been to replicate initial, positive results in clinical trials of new drugs. After exploring many different possible explanations, the author concluded that the discoverer’s unconscious, positive bias in favor of their own drug caused them to unconsciously select certain experiments and interpret data in favor of the drug. These initial studies usually conflicted with the more neutral mind-sets of the follow-on researchers. The author presented convincing data supporting his hypothesis that this unconscious bias caused the substantial differences between the initial and subsequent studies (and this is by scientists who are trained to worship objectivity).

So, if we all look at the world through the bias of our mental models, how can we come to any agreements on the nature of our shared reality? One answer is awareness. As we become more aware of our own mental models and how they filter our perceptions and our thinking, we can correct for it. It is like driving a car that pulls to the right; we compensate by steering a bit to the left. If I know that my mental models pull me toward over-trusting people, I can try to correct for it by giving my trust to people more gradually, looking for them to demonstrate their trustworthiness.

The more I know about my own structures of interpretation, the more I can try to consciously balance them with different information and new interpretations. I can ask myself, “If this is what I believe, I wonder where that belief came from?” This type of increased awareness lies at the heart of most coaching and psychotherapy, and is a powerful key to personal growth, better decisions,and stronger work relationships.

6 Responses to “Driven by Our Filters – How Our Mental Models Affect What We Think”

  1. Michael Broom wrote:

    Nice work, Dan. When we are able to identify and chose the beliefs we have, we are working in the realm of transformation.

  2. Dan Friedman wrote:

    Very insightful. I plan to practice awareness of my own mental models and see if correcting will get me a more objective viewpoint.

    Now, if we could just get people to stop the mental modeling of whole groups of people (cultures, religions, countries), I bet we’d reduce the conflict that seems to be created daily. Let’s try and see how we do.

    Thanks and I await your next post!

  3. Sheryl Spanier wrote:

    This is an excellent explanation of the structure and process of mental models….and excellent and applicable recommendation for increased awareness.
    Thank you for your creative ideas!

  4. Suzanne Tice wrote:

    A well written article and so true. Very important for us as coaches to help our clients become cognizant of their mental models so they can change behavior accordingly.

  5. Kerry Austin wrote:

    Hello Daniel,

    I am in the process of writing a book called “I Motivate” and I am working on a section referring to our personal filters etc. I am writing asking for permission to use the second paragraph of your blog. I promise to reference you and give you all the credit if I am allowed to use it.


    Kerry Austin

  6. dan wrote:

    Sure. You may use the paragraph. I’ll look forward to seeing your piece.