How often are you working on your mental model?

Today is May 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “How often are you working on your mental model?” Inherit the Wind is a 1960 film adaptation of the 1955 play of the same name, written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. The film was directed by Stanley Kramer. It stars Spencer Tracy as lawyer Henry Drummond and Fredric March as his friend and rival Matthew Harrison Brady. Inherit the Wind is a parable that fictionalizes the 1925 Scopes "Monkey" Trial.

The Scopes Trial, formally known as The State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and commonly referred to as the Scopes Monkey Trial, was an American legal case in July 1925 in which a high school teacher, John T. Scopes, was accused of violating Tennessee's Butler Act, which had made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school. The trial was deliberately staged in order to attract publicity to the small town of Dayton, Tennessee, where it was held. Scopes was unsure whether he had ever actually taught evolution, but he incriminated himself purposely so the case could have a defendant.

Scopes was found guilty and fined $100 but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. The trial served its purpose of drawing intense national publicity, as national reporters flocked to Dayton to cover the big-name lawyers who had agreed to represent each side.

William Jennings Bryan, three-time presidential candidate, argued for the prosecution, while Clarence Darrow, the famed defense attorney, spoke for Scopes. In the film the character of Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Fredric March, is based off William Jennings Bryan (notice the three-part name) and the character of Henry Drummond, played by Spencer Tracy, is based off of Clarence Darrow.

The trial publicized the Fundamentalist–Modernist controversy, which set Modernists, who said evolution was not inconsistent with religion, against Fundamentalists, who said the Word of God as revealed in the Bible took priority over all human knowledge. The case was thus seen both as a theological contest and as a trial on whether modern science should be taught in schools.

There is a courtroom scene in the film where Henry Drummond questions Matthew Brady on the scientific authority of the Bible. Brady’s mental model is that the Bible is the only book and the word of God trumps all other academic research, scientific knowledge, or objective analysis. Here is a brief summary of the dialogue.


“biblical scholar Bishop Usher has determined for us the exact date and hour of the creation it occurs near 4004 BC…the good bishop arrived at so careful computation of the ages of the prophets as set down in the Old Testament in fact he determined that the Lord began the creation on the 23rd of October 4004 BC at 9:00 a.m.”


“how long was that day? was it a normal day? literal day of 24 hours? isn't it possible that it could have been 25 hours there's no way to measure it no way to tell could it have been 25 hours? If you interpret that the first day as recorded in the book of Genesis could have been a day of indeterminate length it could have been 30 hours could have been a week, could have been a month, could have been a year, could have been a hundred years, or even 10 million years”

During this exchange Drummond asked Brady if he believed the first day that God created was of 24 hours. Brady responded, “I don’t know.” Drummond queried, “What do you think?” to which Brady quipped “I do not think about things that I do not think about.” After a brief pause Drummond snapped “Do you ever think about things that you do think about?!”

Such an exchange illustrates two diametrically opposed mental models. Brady believes the Bible is the only book while Drummond suggests it is a good book but not the only book. Both men viewed life through their mental models. Mental models help you understand why you are thinking what you are thinking. Mental models, however, are both difficult to identify and perhaps even more challenging to change.

Thinking is hard work. Perhaps the most important and yet least practiced by those navigating the chaos. But if you can work on your mental models you can give yourself an edge to move around, under, or if need be, through an obstacle.

In their March 2015 Harvard Business Review article “Red Ocean Traps,” researchers W. Chan Kim and Renée Maugorgne wrote “Though mental models lie below people’s cognitive awareness, they’re so powerful a determinant of choices and behaviors that many neuroscientists think of them almost as automated algorithms that dictate how people respond to changes and events."

One of the more famous mental models is known as the law of the instrument identified by Abraham Maslow in his 1966 publication The Psychology of Science. This mental model is defined as having an over-reliance on a familiar tool. In popular culture people are familiar with Maslow’s observation "I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail."

How often do you think about things you think about?

How often are you working on your mental models?