Mental Models, Functional Fixedness, and MacGyver

Mental Models

I recently came across the idea of ‘mental models.’ I keep a mindmap on my computer, and when I learn about a new concept, I try to fit it into the mindmap, and connect various ideas. Sometimes the connections are tenuous, other times they really click. This particular concept really clicked.

Here is a great definition from Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization (which I recommend, particularly the last half or so):

“‘Mental models’” are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.”

Of course, without some sort of working theory, it’d be tough to take action, or hold any opinions at all. 

But if we examine these theories from time to time, we may realize they don't hold up. 

Functional Fixedness

Here is one example, the Duncker Experiment:

Participants were given a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches. Their instructions were to:

  •     Affix the candle to a corkboard on a wall.
  •     Light the candle.
  •     Ensure no wax drips onto the table. 

In the first experiment, most participants could not do it. 

They ran the experiment a second time, but with the thumbtacks outside of the box.

This time, every participant figured out they could use thumbtacks to pin the candle to the corkboard, and use the box to collect the wax.

All it took was placing the thumbtacks outside of the box for them to see that they were, in fact, different items and have different functions. 

(This is perhaps why MacGyver was so successful—he could see that bubble gum could not only be chewed, it could also prevent a nuclear explosion.)

The mental models concept also applies to businesses.

Think about how long Blockbuster stuck around after Netflix, even when their stores were empty. They couldn’t get past the idea that people like to save time, and one way to save time is to have DVDs mailed to you instead of having to go the store. 

You might also argue this applies to Windows 8. It is MESSY looking. People really like clean, minimal desktops. (Or perhaps this is a mental model of my own.)

I Am Not Stubborn!

The concept also applies to personal relationships. 

For years, my friends have all said how stubborn I am—that I must win an argument. But I’ve changed, I swear! But once in a blue moon, on those rare occasions when I do argue, they all say: “Oh, there he goes again.” 

Of course, I do the same exact thing with them. In many ways, I view them the same as I did 15 years ago. When I look objectively at them, I see incredible, dynamic change. 

Being 'Objective'

The book mentioned above—The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization—suggests “[bringing mental models] to the surface and [holding] them rigorously to scrutiny[,]” and in particular, the scrutiny of others. 

Of course, this assumes it is possible to identify our mental models. I would also argue we sometimes hold conflicting mental models, complicating the process.

But perhaps worth a try? 


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