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Conceptual Frameworks and Mental Models: An Introduction

It seems that every sight, sound and idea we experience is processed through a conceptual framework in our mind.

As you read this, the shape, colors, and contrasting black squiggles on white are being converted, via frameworks you and I share, into images, words, sentences, and connected ideas in your mind.

Imagine how confusing life would be if we had to categorize, name and evaluate the ideas of the letter S,  smartphone, windows, tree, and sunlight afresh every time we encountered them?  It is no wonder to me that babies are awake so little when they are first born, free of frameworks; all that uncategorized input to process!

A conceptual framework, or mental model, is a structure our minds use to organize information and our thinking. We start with milk/not milk, Mama/not Mama first, but very quickly build all sorts of frames that help us sort out friends from threats, new from old, better from best and on and on until we are operating vehicles on highways and comparing literature. In working life, when we hire people based on their education and experience we are actually hiring the mental models they’ve developed.

Using these models we can:

  • Categorize sense data and ideas into usable information
  • Model relationships (correlation and causation)
    • For instance, distance = rate x time is a common mental model we use while traveling.
  • Streamline our prioritization of inputs and facilitate thinking about what’s most important right now

These models:

  • Come to us subconsciously for the most part until we become conscious of learning as we enter school
  • Are only replaced when we find a new model that is clearly superior
  • Accumulate until we call someone with very well-developed models experienced and/or wise
    • LinkedIn, resumes and CVs are all indications of what models we might have developed through our experiences in various positions and industries
  • Are created by humans and can be refined and replaced

An Example

Carl Linneaus, an 18th century Swedish botanist, came up with a conceptual framework to help understand the wild complexity of life on earth.  You may have learned his model in high school biology with the mnemonic; Keep Pots Clean Or Family Gets Sick.  With this model, he organized life into Kingdoms (Plant, Animal), Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species.

Image result for linnaeus classification

A Revealing Edge Case

Linneaus’ framework is fascinating and useful, but the edge cases show us the limits of even the most commonly accepted models.

Consider the tiny, Mesodinium chamaeleon which is a creature that defies Linneaus’ neat categorization and bridges the two kingdoms; it is both a plant and an animal at once!

Mesodinium chamaeleon reminds us that our frameworks are not real, they are simply hypothetical arrangements imposed on our complex, fascinating world.

The Territory and The Map

Edge cases like Mesodinium chamaeleon reveal that the map is NOT the territory, just as the map of Linneaus’ hometown, Uppsala, Sweden pales in comparison to the actual Uppsala Domkryka church both in richness and complexity.

Image result for Uppsala Sweden

Of course, maps are quite useful.  The question is how do we become conscious of the limitations of the maps we are currently using and then how do we consciously work to develop more useful mental maps, frameworks and models?

Learning the Limits of Our Maps

Over our lives, we have internalized a vast array of mental maps and models. Many were handed to us by family, friends, teachers, coworkers, and bosses without us even  knowing we were absorbing them.  Many of these models serve us very well, but others may not. Our current set of frameworks and models may be:

  • Incomplete
  • Outdated as our inputs, environments or responsibilities evolve
  • Mis-aligned with our current values and wisdom about ourselves, the world, correlations and causations.

As a college student, I developed a mental model of how the world worked out my studies in economic history, my experiences with business leaders, 70’s self-help programs, and my readings from Ayn Rand to Henry David Thoreau.  My model had allowed me to write a successful senior thesis, win in real estate investment and travel around the world. There I stood, 23 years old, single free and powerful.

One day, I found myself on the side of a busy street in Mumbai with a baby girl covered in flies, sitting in broken glass at my feet.  Her mother sorted through a meager pile of refuse a few steps away.

What was my responsibility to this baby, to her mother, to myself?

In an instant, my strong, winning mental model based in personal responsibility, progress and opportunity shattered and fell to the ground.

How I made it through the next few days with a shattered model for life is a story for another post.

Suffice it to say that it took months to rebuild a mental model that worked for me. The new model had to incorporate the polarities of Providence and freewill, opportunity and injustice, ethics and privilege, love and financial/material success among many other variables.

Even with my new model, I had been forever changed by the experience that revealed the fragility and incompleteness of my mental models.

Learning to Proactively Refine Our Own Maps

That experience, and many experiences since, have left me with a few open questions:

  • How do I become more conscious of the frameworks and maps I am using to structure inputs and think in my daily life?
  • How do I begin testing the efficacy of my current maps, models and frameworks?
  • How do I find or develop new frameworks that might be a lot more accurate, humane and effective?
  • What might be possible if I can really transform my experience and my results simply by refining the mental models I use?

Thanks for sharing the journey,

Further reading

Latticework, Hagstrom

1 thought on “Conceptual Frameworks and Mental Models: An Introduction

  1. […] students and parents are not customers. Thinking about our schools as businesses leads us to mental images, ideas, measurements and behaviors that are inappropriate. The operating metaphor for a school must […]

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