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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 models?” In short, a mental model is how you think about thinking. It’s more than understanding what you think about a specific issue, or even how you process your thinking about that issue; a mental model is a way of thinking, well, about your thinking.

Today’s reflection stems from Inherit the Wind, 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 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 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 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 and the character of Henry Drummond, played by Spencer Tracy, is based off 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 summary of the dialogue.

Brady: “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.”

Drummond: “How long was that day? Was it a normal day? A 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.

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." This is critical for today’s reflection as the evidence strongly suggests that individuals are seldom aware of how they are thinking about how they think.

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."

As you go about leveraging your mind, body, and spirit today to navigate the chaos and put in the work required to translate one dream after another into reality, you would serve yourself well if you realized that not every issue you encounter along your path needs a hammer. Being aware of your mental model and thinking about how you are thinking on a regular basis can help you better understand what tool you need.

  • How often are you working on your mental models?

  • How often do you ‘think about things you do think about?’

  • How often do you even consider your mental models and define them?

  • Why do you think mental models are so difficult for people to change?

  • Do you treat everything as a nail?

  • What are you doing to help yourself develop new tools and different mental models that will allow you to select the appropriate one for any given life situation?

  • Do you have anyone in your life that could help you with your mental models?

  • Have you ever helped anyone work on their mental models?


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