Mental models as filters? LO13012

Philip J. Ferneau (
Tue, 25 Mar 1997 13:05:09 -0500

Replying to LO13000 --

Steve Wehrenberg asked,

> I wonder if it's possible that a mental model, to carry the pane of glass
> analogy along, might actually serve as a lens that focuses perception to
> something that is even clearer than reality? ...<excerpted> ... Is it
> possible that some mental models, in some situations, for some people,
> are actually beneficial?

Steve's recent post recalls Deming's oft-repeated observation -- "all
models are wrong, some models are useful." All models are "wrong" to the
extent they necessarily are incomplete representations of reality. But
some models, those that help us understand reality better, are useful.

The fact is, mental models are essential. We all need to simplify reality
in order to deal with it. Everyone does it. For instance, most business
people develop a tacit mental model that distills the complex system of
their business reality into a handful of critical success factors. They
use the state of those factors as indicators of how well their business is
faring and when they need to take corrective action.

The usefulness of a given model lies in its ability to help its owner
understand reality. If a business manager's mental model inaccurately
reflects the business's true condition or leads the manager to take
inappropriate action, the model isn't useful as is.

The challenge we all face is to work at improving our mental models to
make them more useful. In that sense, mental models should be viewed as
"assumptions and theory testers" rather than static filters.

The bottom line is that the quality of a mental model depends on the
quality of the thinking that went into it.

-- Phil

Philip J. Ferneau
High Performance Systems, Inc. Tel: (603) 643-9636
45 Lyme Rd., Suite 300 Fax: (603) 643-9502
Hanover, NH 03755 Web:


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