Mental Models: Story



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?We tell a lot of stories in organizations:

How might this apply to your business?Are you creating a story that includes your stakeholders? Stories can be explicit—simple, episodic narratives. Or a story can be implied, using words that suggest conflict, a hero or other narrative elements. The most powerful stories are well-crafted visions that give significance to mundane tasks.


What story did you tell yourself about the last person you just met or came into contact with?

See Also

Commitment & Consistency, Autonomy, Authority, Affect Heuristic, Conceptual Metaphor, Priming, Framing, Periodic Events, Task Significance


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: An Overview

increasing the quality of our thinking

mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences.

If used responsibly, mental models can inform marketing, product design, and influence technology. If left unchecked, mental models can turn into foibles or minor weaknesses or eccentricities in our character.

Artificial intelligence and predictive data will continue to advance, enabling exponential growth. In AI and machine learning programs, discrimination is caused by data. This “algorithmic bias” occurs when AI and computing systems act not in objective fairness, but according to the prejudices that exist with the people who formulated, cleaned and structured their data. This is not inherently harmful – human bias can be as simple as preferring red to blue – but warning signs have started to appear.

A research team at the University of California Berkeley distinguished pre-existing biases in training data from the technical biases that arise from the tools and algorithms that power these AI systems and from the emergent biases that result from human interactions with them.

Ultimately, the solutions we embrace (whether technically or process-oriented) are only as good as the data it is trained to analyze. How we assess problems includes pre-existing (human) biases. These impact us on an individual and societal level. This kind of bias was found in a risk assessment software known as COMPAS. Courtroom judges used it to forecast which criminals were most likely to offend. When news organization ProPublica compared COMPAS risk assessments for 10,000 people arrested in one county in Florida with data showing which ones went on to re-offend, it discovered that when the algorithm was right, its decision making was fair. But when the algorithm was wrong, people of color were almost twice as likely to be labeled a higher risk, yet they did not re-offend.

Gaining insight to our mental models are how we understand the world. Not only do they shape what we think and how we understand but they shape the connections and opportunities that we see. Mental models help make the complex simple. complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.

A mental model is just that…a model. It’s a tool that enables us to make an abstract representation of a complex issue. Models help our brains filter the details of the world so we can focus on the relevant details of an issue.

Photo by  Todd Quackenbush

A path toward better thinking

The quality of our thinking is proportional to the models we are aware of, and our ability to apply them correctly in a situation. The more models you know, the bigger your toolbox. The more models you apply, the more likely you are to see reality with greater clarity and make better decisions. When it comes to improving your ability to make decisions variety (and volume) matters.

Most of us, however, are specialists. Instead of a latticework of mental models, we have a few from our discipline–a few “rules of thumb.” Each specialist sees something different.

When you look at a forest, do you focus on:

  • the ecosystem? You might be a botanist.

  • the impact of climate change? You might be an environmentalist.

  • the state of the tree growth? You might be forestry engineer.

  • the value of the land? You might be a business person.

None of these perspectives are wrong. And, none of them see the forest in its entirety. That is the value of cross-disciplinary thinking. Understanding the basics of the other perspectives leads to a more well-rounded understanding of the forest allowing for better initial decisions about managing it. That’s latticework.

By putting these disciplines together in our head, we can gain greater proximity to the problem at hand by seeing it in a three dimensional way. If consider the problem merely from one angle, we’ve got a blind spot. And blind spots can kill you.

Photo by  Nicolas Picard

A Network of Mental Models for “good humaning”

Building your repertoire of mental models will help you make better decisions. Once you know a few, you will start to make connections between them, helping you create a networked understanding of how you operate as a human being. I’ve collected and summarized the ones I’ve found the most useful. You can use them almost like a deck of cards.

One of the reasons I refer to them as “Foibles” is because these biases are universal to us all. They are what make us human. Succumbing to them clouds our view of the world and contributes to making costly mistakes in our relationships, our businesses, and as a society.

I refer to “good humaning” because between learning and integration lies “the journey”, “the struggle”, “the gap.”  Part of our work is learning and re-learning what it means to be a good human or to do “humaning” well, by making better decisions in our relationships, business, and society at large.

Remember: Developing this level of self-awareness about how you and others operate is a lifelong project. Stick with it, and you’ll find that you will see reality more clearly, make better decisions more consistently, and help those you love and care with greater your increased presence.

Mental Models Explained

  1. The Map is not the Territory metaphorically illustrates the differences between belief and reality. The phrase was coined by Alfred Korzybski. Our perception of the world is being generated by our brain and can be considered as a ‘map’ of reality written in neural patterns. Reality exists outside our mind but we can construct models of this ‘territory’ based on what we glimpse through our senses.

  2. Higher Order Thinking moves from the easier and safer anticipation of the immediate results of our actions, to thinking farther ahead and thinking holistically. The first approach ensures we get the same results as everyone else. Second-order thinking requires us to not only consider our actions and their immediate consequences but consider the long game. Failing to think through long term effects can invite crisis and disaster.

  3. Inversion is a common method used in creative ideation sessions, also known as reverse thinking. Instead of following the ‘normal, logical’ direction of a challenge, you turn it around (or an important element in the challenge) and look for opposite ideas.

More coming!

Mental Models: The Map is not the Territory



How might this apply to great teams and cultures?

Our perception of the world is being generated by our brain and can be considered as a 'map' of reality written in neural patterns. Reality exists outside our mind but we can construct models of this 'territory' based on what we glimpse through our senses.

How might this apply to great products?

There are times when an old map, one that worked in a particular context, does not apply to a new context.


Even the best maps are imperfect because they are reductions of what they represent. If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. Scribbling on the map does not change the territory: If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit. A map can also be a snapshot of a point in time, representing something that no longer exists. This is important to keep in mind as we think through problems and make better decisions.


Case Study: J.C. Penny

Every day, leaders make decisions about maximizing current cash flow and profits or reinvesting and building for the long term. But if decisions were as easy as moving money around from budget A to budget B, there would be a lot more successful businesses. A substantial portion of business failures–from the costly to the catastrophic–can be attributed to not paying attention to the right balance between maximizing current performance and building future potential.

Photo:  Andrew Burton/Reuters  Ron Johnson, chief executive of J.C. Penney, says the store renovation plan is a success.

Photo: Andrew Burton/Reuters Ron Johnson, chief executive of J.C. Penney, says the store renovation plan is a success.

Apple’s Ron Johnson made the radar in 2011. Handpicked by Steve Jobs to build the Apple Stores, he is also credited with playing a major role in turning Target from a K-Mart look-alike into the trendy-but-cheap Tar-zhey by the late 1990s and early 2000s.

By 2011, Apple stores the most productive retail per-square-foot basis, leaving Tiffany’s in the dust. The gleaming glass cube on Fifth Avenue became a more popular tourist attraction than the Statue of Liberty.

Asked to apply his success from Apply and Target to J.C.Penny’s, Johnson was hired by Bill Ackman, Steven Roth, and other luminaries to turn around the tired old department store. The chain was attempting to reinvent themselves, leaving behind the core customer in an attempt to gain new ones. This was a much different proposition.

Johnson pitched his idea in with standard Apple suspense and fanfare. JC Penney’s stock price went from $26 in the summer of 2011 to $42 in early 2012 on the strength of the pitch.

The idea failed almost immediately. His new pricing model (eliminating discounting) was a flop. The coupon-hunters rebelled. Much of his new product was deemed too trendy. His new store model was wildly expensive for a middling department store chain – including operating losses purposefully endured, he’d spent several billion dollars trying to affect the physical transformation of the stores. JC Penney customers had no idea what was going on, and by 2013, Johnson was sacked. The stock price sank into the single digits, where it remains two years later.

What went wrong in the quest to build America’s Favorite Store? It turned out that Johnson was using a map of Portland Maine to navigate Portland Oregon. Apple’s products, customers, and history had far too little in common with JC Penney’s. Apple had a rabid, young, affluent fan-base before they built stores; JC Penney’s was not associated with youth or affluence. Apple had shiny products, and needed a shiny store; JC Penney was known for its affordable sweaters. Apple had never relied on discounting in the first place; JC Penney was taking away discounts given prior, triggering massive deprival super-reaction.

“All models are wrong but some are useful.”

— George Box

In other words, the old map was not very useful. Even his success at Target, which seems like a closer analog, was misleading in the context of JC Penney. Target had made small, incremental changes over many years, to which Johnson had made a meaningful contribution. JC Penney was attempting to reinvent the concept of the department store in a year or two, leaving behind the core customer in an attempt to gain new ones. This was a much different proposition.

The main issue was not that Johnson was incompetent. He wasn’t. He wouldn’t have gotten the job if he was. He was extremely competent. But it was exactly his competence and past success that got him into trouble. He was like a great swimmer that tried to tackle a grand rapid, and the model he used successfully in the past, the map that had navigated a lot of difficult terrain, was not the map he needed anymore. He had an excellent theory about retailing that applied in some circumstances, but not in others. The terrain had changed, but the old idea stuck.

Relevant Books:




How might this apply to your business?

How are you presenting choices in your system? What are the available options? An implied story makes the most desirable choice more obvious, especially for new or difficult concepts. For example, framing donations as costing “less than a cup of coffee a day” encourages people to rationalize a monthly pledge.

See also: Conceptual Metaphor, Story, Loss Aversion