Mental Models: Appropriate Challenges



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

Easy is overrated. Turn some tasks into challenges or contests. Research shows we are happiest when faced with something challenging (but not too overwhelming). The “challenge” can be designed into a system like reaching monthly numbers or created by reflecting someone’s personal best (or average) performance in an area.

How might this apply to great products?

A designed challenge can be heavily constructed (game design) or merely suggest an intriguing, unsolved problem. Performing at increasing levels of difficulty require the retrieval of existing knowledge and the challenge of applying that information to new situations or contexts.


How many times do we simply repeat what we know? How many times do we really generalize our learning to new contexts and invest time in focusing on deeper learning to generate more creative and effective solutions for real-world problems?

See Also

Curiosity, Status, Surprise, Set Completion, Competition, Repudiation, Feedback Loops


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.

Book Shelf: Everyday Bias by Howard J. Ross


Diversity consultant Howard J. Ross shows how to free yourself from biases you probably don’t even know you have. The problem is that biases are unconscious. As a result, you may be unaware of some of the reasons underlying your actions and reactions. Maybe you have rejected a job applicant who resembles someone you don’t like, or you might choose a presidential candidate based on height. Maybe you have missed great opportunities because of a hidden antipathy against certain groups of people or an unacknowledged assumption about gender roles. If you increase your awareness of your biases, you can take steps to circumvent them – as do orchestras that audition players behind a screen to bypass race, age and gender biases, and just hear the music. Ross explains the evolutionary roots of bias, and outlines strategies for finding and defusing individual and organizational prejudices. He recounts fascinating research findings, such as the one featuring radiologists so intent on spotting cancer cells that they didn’t notice the inch-tall image of a gorilla that researchers had superimposed on the X-ray.  

3 Key Points

  • How biases develop,
  • Why most biases are unconscious and
  • How to mitigate the influence of unconscious biases.


  • All human beings have biases.
  • Most of these biases are unconscious; you’re unaware of them.
  • You may never know when you’ve based a reaction or decision on an unconscious bias.
  • Biases are a product of the way the brain tries to categorize everything it experiences.
  • Instead of trying to eliminate your biases, grow more aware of them.
  • Becoming conscious of your biases allows you to seek alternative perspectives.
  • Businesses and other organizations have biases.
  • A culture’s institutions, such as its media, help reinforce widely held biases.
  • Examine every stage of your business’s processes for hidden biases.
  • Fight bias with small changes, like using neutral pronouns in job descriptions.


Gut Feelings

Everyone has biases. Over a lifetime, you and every other human being compile a mental database of judgments, beliefs and prejudices. You draw on this resource to make virtually every decision. But, you usually won’t know you’re checking in with your hidden biases because this database is stored in your unconscious mind. It filters your decisions beyond your awareness.

“Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased.”

Hidden biases explain why subjects in one experiment consistently gave higher ratings to a student application when they thought it came from a male. Corporate recruiters favored a résumé when they thought it came from a white applicant rather than from a black applicant. Environmental conditions can influence decisions: College admissions officials rated applicants higher when they interviewed them on sunny days and lower when they met on rainy days.

“We not only are profoundly biased, but we also almost never know we are being biased.”

People around the globe strive to erase such biases. Nations, states and communities have outlawed discrimination, instituted speech codes, and launched initiatives to foster tolerance in schools, businesses and other organizations. Society has made progress in racial equality, women’s rights, and the acceptance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“Hidden prejudices and biases are surprisingly influential underpinnings to all the decisions we make, affecting our feelings and, consequently, our actions.”

But intolerance and inequality persist. The results are often unfair and sometimes tragic. Disparities affect how hospitals treat patients of different races. Women’s salaries lag behind men’s. African Americans go to jail at a much higher rate than white Americans. Gay teenagers are four times more likely to kill themselves than straight teenagers. Since the recession began in 2008, anti-immigrant sentiment has increased in the US and Europe.

“Possessing bias is part and parcel of being human. And the more we think we are immune to it, the greater the likelihood that our own biases will be invisible or unconscious to us!”

Most prejudices are invisible to the people who hold them. Your unconscious biases have power only because you remain unaware of them. Increasing your awareness and enlarging your consciousness enables you to confront and undermine the power of your biases.

“Sometimes, dealing more effectively with unconscious bias involves something as simple as just noticing the bias.”


Biases cause mischief, but their presence makes sense in evolutionary terms. The world was a dangerous place for humankind’s primitive ancestors and they needed to sense danger instantly and decide how to react. They learned to categorize people, things and animals quickly and to assign values to them: safe or unsafe, friend or foe. They automatically categorized a new person or situation by searching their memories for similar phenomena from the past. To stay safe, they had to make snap judgments based on superficial cues.

“One of the most effective ways to begin to ‘dis-identify’ with our biases is through exposure to people and groups we harbor biases against.”

The human brain still functions this way: People unconsciously size up strangers by their clothes or accents. You might reject a job candidate because he or she resembles someone you don’t like. You may come up with a conscious reason that’s a rationalization for your gut reaction. Because your biases are unconscious, you can’t determine how much influence they have.

“This is the world we live in today. A self-referential world fueled by a constant flood of information that affirms our already strongly held biases.”

Not all of your biases come from personal experience. You pick up many prejudices because your culture widely supports them. Human beings need a sense of belonging to a group. Cultural standards and norms reinforce that feeling of belonging and unity by inculcating biases against outsiders. Electronic media reinforce group biases. Every political ideology, for instance, has websites and cable TV channels that affirm their adherents’ biases.

“There are now dozens of peer-reviewed studies that demonstrate that liberals and conservatives don’t react differently to the world we are seeing: We each see a different world!”

The Mechanisms of Bias

The way the brain filters reality causes you to create biases. Its mechanisms include:

“The fact that most people are not aware of their bias has almost no bearing on whether or not it is there, or whether or not it motivates our behavior.”

  • “Selective attention” – Your consciousness focuses on the things it deems important and ignores others. A famous experiment illustrated how this works: Researchers asked subjects to watch a video of an informal basketball game and to count the number of times the players passed the ball. The subjects were so focused on counting the passes that about half didn’t notice when a man in a gorilla suit walked into the middle of the court, beat his chest and walked off. Subjects saw the gorilla, but their brains failed to process or register the image. Selective attention is useful for navigating a world filled with constant, competing stimuli.
  • “Confirmation bias” – When you use this filter, you unconsciously seek information that supports your preconceptions. You see this bias in action when political commentators respond to current events. Liberal and conservative pundits each “cherry pick” from the same information to support their own perspectives. This also happens in business. For example, when you identify people as “high-potential,” you probably give them more opportunities to demonstrate competence, thus confirming your expectations.
  • “Pattern recognition” – Your brain will always try to discern repeating patterns in your experiences. When you experience something new, your brain tries to fit that event into an existing template. If a person you see routinely acts in a threatening way, for instance, you assume that he or she will continue that pattern when you next meet.

“Unconscious influences dominate our everyday life.”

Taming Bias

The benefits of controlling your biases are obvious. You can take your decision making off automatic pilot. Businesses can tap talent from a wider pool. A more diverse student body would enrich the experience of getting an education.

“Our minds quickly go to the solutions that make the most sense and often miss other possibilities that are right in front of us.”

Why do biases endure? Perhaps they linger because society attacks the problem from the wrong direction. It tries to suppress biases, to shame people out of their prejudices. This approach is more likely to provoke defensiveness, guilt and denial than to inspire change. Acknowledging that everyone has biases and trying to increase each person’s awareness of them would be more productive.

“Knowing not to believe everything you think is a good start toward managing bias.”

Pull your hidden biases into the light to figure out strategies for defusing their influence. Sometimes merely being aware of a bias can reduce its power. That’s what happened with a bias that researchers identified among professional basketball referees. Researchers found that white referees called fouls on black players more frequently than on white players. Black officials called fouls on a disproportionate share of white players. After the study became well known, the discrepancy practically vanished, even though the league took no special initiatives to address it.

“We have a largely unconscious tendency to see ourselves in a positive light.”

Making Bias Less Powerful

Cultivate your awareness of hidden biases and drain their power by following six steps:

  1. Accept that biases are normal and universal – Feeling guilty about your biases is counterproductive and probably leads to “self-recrimination, denial or self-justification” rather than progress. Once you accept the universality of bias, try to identify your individual biases. One useful way is to take the online “Implicit Association Test.” This test may help you unravel your unconscious attitudes toward people of different groups. You can also unearth some biases by reflecting on the “narrative” of your life – the string of experiences from which you’ve constructed your unique filter on the world. Think about the culture you grew up in and the institutions you participated in, such as your school or house of worship. When you identify the root of a bias, you can consciously “reframe” it. For instance, if you have a negative bias against a racial group, you can change your narrative by seeking stories of people who overcame such biases.
  2. Learn to observe yourself – When you turn your focus away from the outside world and observe your own reactions to life, your thinking becomes less automatic. Biases generally take advantage of the fact that people rarely focus on the present. They usually respond to the moment by drawing on their memories of past interactions or fear. However, if you heed the present, you can catch your knee-jerk responses in action and modify your behavior.
  3. “Practice constructive uncertainty” – Human beings have automatic responses because the brain tries to reduce uncertainty as quickly as possible. To your brain, uncertainty signals danger. Defuse these programmed responses by pausing at the moment of uncertainty. Analyze what’s happening, and try to differentiate between the event and your interpretation of it. Observe your reaction and interpretation, and consider alternative reactions and interpretations. Choose the “most constructive, empowering or productive” way to handle the event, and put it into action.
  4. Pay attention to uncomfortable moments – Sometimes you may feel discomfort around certain types of people or events. The automatic reaction to such a situation is the “fight or flight” response, which calls for making an assessment and deciding whether you need to defend yourself or run. Stop and try to discern if you are truly responding to the current circumstances or if you are unconsciously linking them to past events.
  5. Get to know people from other groups – If you have negative feelings about a particular group of people, get to know someone from that group or learn about the group’s history and culture. The more you know about a person or group, the harder it is to cling to a stereotype.
  6. “Get feedback and data” – People often judge the effectiveness of their actions by how those actions make them feel rather than assessing the results by gathering measurable data. To learn if your responses really represent your best thinking or are unconscious reactions, look at the evidence.

“Creating More Conscious Organizations”

Businesses and other organizations develop biases. Be on the lookout for “collective biases” any time you hear the phrase that’s “the way we do things around here.” You’ll find these biases in every decision a group makes in different areas, including hiring, work flow and marketing. When you become aware of these biases, you can put mechanisms in place that lead to more rational decision making.A great example of outsmarting unconscious bias comes from the way symphony orchestras addressed the underrepresentation of women in their ranks. Before 1970, orchestras were about 95% male, a ratio that may have reflected the bias of those who chose the musicians. Beginning in the 1970s, major orchestras instituted blind auditions: They identified candidates by numbers instead of names, and had them play their music from behind a screen. Blind to bias-triggering cues such as race or gender, the listeners could focus entirely on the quality of each person’s musicianship. The number of female orchestra members has increased an average of 25%.Other organizations can use analogous tactics to mitigate the effects of bias. Since the goal is to expand the consciousness of the organization, this effort will differ from the usual ways you might cultivate diversity. Usually, organizations attempt to contend with bias or prejudice by discouraging prejudicial behavior. The result is a culture of “political correctness” that hides the issues you need to examine. Teach your team members to become aware of biases, to learn how biases affect their performance, as well as to work to mitigate those biases.

Signs of Bias

Examine every aspect of your business for signs of bias. Create an organizational map, drawing on employee or customer surveys, focus groups and other data sources to discern patterns in your treatment of various groups. For instance, can you find a consistent pattern in the way your recruiters rate résumés from female and male job applicants? Interview former employees to discern their inside and outside views of your processes.Many of the antibias measures you put in place will be small, but they can have a big impact. For instance, in employee evaluations, eliminate assessments that rate employees with number scores or descriptors like “good” or “poor.” Such ratings invite bias because different supervisors may interpret the rankings in different ways. Utilize a narrative approach, in which you tell employees “what they should stop doing, start doing and continue to do.”

About the Author

Howard J. Ross, professor in residence at the Bennett College for Women, founded the diversity consultancy Cook Ross. He also wrote ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose & Performance.

Mental Models: Feedback Loops



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

Feedback loops are simple to understand: you produce something, measure information on the production, and use that information to improve production. Every step in the process generates information. Enterprises can use such information to increase their efficacy across a variety of segments.

How might this apply to great products?

Does your system respond immediately to user input? Or can you allow people to play with the information, turning a status message into an interactive one? Use numeric data to show people how they are doing, or translate data into analogous visual information. Feedback can be immediate, in the form of a quick challenge, or delivered at a later date as a monthly report.


What systemic issues cause the most complaints? how do various population segments make their concerns known? what departments receive the most complaints? how quickly does the business solve problems on average?

See Also

Visual Imagery, Appropriate Challenges, Shaping, Sequencing, Periodic Events, Status, Achievements.


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.


Mental Models: Anchoring & Adjustment

When making decisions, we rely too heavily—or anchor—on one trait or piece of information.


How might this apply to great teams and cultures?
In unfamiliar situation, we tend to evaluate things based on a single data point, or known anchor. From here we draw conclusions and  make relative adjustments. These anchors are often a numeric value, such as one’s review score or a promotion ratio.

How might this apply to great products?
The original price or a single attribute such as the amount of memory on a laptop or cell phone. Oddly enough, even the suggestion of a completely irreverent number can influence subsequent numeric predictions.

What anchors are you intentionally—or unintentionally—providing people?

What challenges — tied to desired behaviors — do you have in place?

See Also
Priming, Conceptual Metaphor, Framing


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.

Mental Models: Contrast Effect



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

We enhance or diminish others in relation to our perception of normal. It shows up in how we interact with, partner with, or seek others out.

How might this apply to great products or services?

Colors, size, shapes and other design elements are used to create visual contrast. Subtle movements on an otherwise static page catch people’s attention. Contrast can also be felt over time (an irregular e-mail notification vs. a daily notification) or through unusual and unexpected content or experiences.


Think about what qualities you want people to focus on for talent, for culture, for cultivating creativity, etc.--and, how you are willing to support those qualities to succeed.

See Also

Chunking, Juxtaposition, Proximity, Uniform Connectedness


Mental Models: Authority Principle

We want to follow the lead and advice of a legitimate authority.

How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

When communicating an idea that you want to see taken up by others, demonstrating authority in some way will give you more credibility in the eyes of your audience, and enable them to make a decision much more easily as the decision will feel less risky. Remember the reverse — if a figure of authority is stating that your idea is not the way to go, your audience is likely to listen to that statement. You need to be aware of this before communicating your message, so do your research and try to understand what authority positions in the market are saying.

How might this apply to great products?

To some extent, we all look for guidance and direction. Following a perceived leader has real benefits as it means you don’t have to spend time and energy figuring things out for yourself — you can just copy, learn from them, or obey and get the benefits. First to market gives authority. So does best quality.


How well does your product, service or organization lead people through an experience? Does that experience communicate confidence, quality and assurance? Are there options in your application that could be made at a design level on behalf of users? In an uncertain or new space, is there the presence of a formal authority figure (or brand) to reassure people?

See Also

Social Proof, Contrast, Limited Choice, Autonomy, Sequencing


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.

Mental Models: Set Completion



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

When something is certain and known then we feel comfortable and in control. When something is not complete, we cannot close that item in our mind as we have to keep thinking about it. This maintenance activity adds effort and leads to predictions that might give us cause for concern. This is the basis for the need for completion, and we will, therefore, seek to close off things that we do so we can forget them and move on to the next item of interest.

Some people have a particular need for completion and in teams will be the person who makes sure all jobs are done (often doing the jobs themselves). People who compulsively tidy up are "completer-finishers" as they see untidiness as a step before the completion of tidiness. Contrast this with people who are not completer-finishers and who will happily start something but will be unlikely to see things through to the end.

How might this apply to your business?

What can people collect in your system? How can these be organized into discrete sets to provide easier, achievable goals (and the motivation to continue completing the larger collection)? This principle also applies to incomplete puzzles or pictures—we desire to see the whole image completed. Look for logical groupings (like kinds of information) that can suggest set completion.


Are you a completer or a starter? What gaps do you seek to close? How do you leave things for people to complete. Start a sentence and see if they will complete it for you -- if they do, you have put the other person into the completer-finisher position. This can be a powerful tool in changing minds.Even if they do not verbally complete the sentence, they will do so in their minds. Watch their body language for signs of what they might be thinking.Likewise, you can use completion in physical tasks. Start something and give it to another to complete. Give rewards for completion, particularly if you have no completer-finishers who will end the job for you.

See Also

Chunking, Curiosity, Achievements, Collecting, Variable Rewards, Pattern Recognition, Status, Gifting, Reputation


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.


Mental Models: Commitment & Consistency


How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

When we are incented to and challenged to speak and act outside their normal belief boundaries, preferably in a public way. This encourages them to change their beliefs and to be consistent with their actions. This is how Brainwashing works.

We think of brainwashing as negative but it is actually a pretty neutral concept. It happens all the time. Think of the values and mission you adopted when you joined your last company. Each day you were asked to do some small thing that you agreed with (or not) and over time, it became your truth.

When our actions differ from our beliefs or values, we need to explain this gap to ourselves. We crave routine, so we do not generally want to change our beliefs or values. Our first move is to seek external reasons for the difference. For example, sometimes people can have a hard time letting go of strong cultures even once they've moved on in their career--expecting every other organization to adopt those same strong beliefs and ways of doing things.

Change has to be incremental or the actions people are asked to take will seem too overwhelming. When people aren't taking personal responsibility for their own actions, they claim that they were forced to act as they did. They blame authority (watch out, this might be you!). This is why it is so important to "get everyone on board", make values work an ongoing part of your business management, and make the change a daily/ongoing practice.

How might this apply to your business?

People have a general desire to be (and appear) consistent in their behavior. Ask someone to state a position, declare their intentions, or show a small gesture of support. Why? Generally, people will act in a manner consistent with these small requests, even it later asked to make a much larger (but consistent) commitment. Be careful: done poorly, these will be viewed as compliance tactics.


How did you react the last time new management came in with different ideas?

See Also

Story, Reputation, Status, Sequencing, Trigger, Social Proof, Positive Mimicry


In the whirl of our day-to-day interactions, it’s all too easy to forget the nuances that distinguish great teams, great cultures, and great products/services.

Mental Model Flash Cards bring together insights from psychology into an easy reference and brainstorming tool. Each card describes one insight into human behavior and suggests ways to apply this to your teams as well as the design of your products and services.