Is it time to update your Mental Models?


“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 are how we simplify complexity, why we consider some things more relevant than others, and how we reason.” –

Psychologists like myself are very interested in mental models. I am particularly interested in the relationship between how someone sees the world, and their overall wellbeing. As a simple example, someone who constructs the world as consisting of mostly malicious and dangerous individuals will experience greater anxiety and fear, interpret the actions of others as having ill intent, and may even subconsciously seek out associations with malicious individuals.

Mental models are not generally assessed on the basis of being right or wrong. That is because no model is a complete description of reality. A model is always a simplified description of reality. For example, the mental model of ‘confirmation bias‘ states that we will seek out information that confirms our existing beliefs. We do this often. But we don’t do it all the time. Thus the ‘confirmation bias’ is neither all right nor all wrong. Instead, a better way to assess a mental model is on the basis of usefulness or helpfulness. A mental model is useful inasmuch as it helps you interact with, adapt to, or modify reality.

Take the example I gave earlier about the person who constructs the world as consisting of “mostly malicious and dangerous individuals”. This mental model is useful if the person is indeed in a situation where the people around them are dangerous and unpredictable. It is likely to enhance their ability to survive in that situation.

However the model is not useful if the person is living in a context in which there are actually a number of people around them who are well-intentioned, interested in their welfare and trustworthy. If they operate according to their old mental model, they won’t trust anyone, form very superficial relationships and see threat and danger where it doesn’t exist. It will actually impair their ability to thrive in this new situation. To adapt better to the new situation, the person needs to update their mental model to cater for the fact that some people are well intentioned and interacting with them is likely to lead to better outcomes.


Mental models and study

Each of us develops mental models about study and work, and those mental models influence our study and work outcomes.

I’ve been lucky over the past couple of weeks to have been sitting in on the trial of Studyology V2 that is taking place at the moment. Doing so has helped me identify some of the mental models that hold students back from doing well at their studies. I’ve even identified a couple of mental models that seem to be holding me back as well.



We are here today because our ancestors managed to avoid danger long enough to reproduce. Identifying danger and avoiding it has been a good mental model for dangers that sit outside the skin (e.g. weather, predators, heights, poisonous snakes/spiders).

But the anxiety/avoid mental model isn’t anywhere near as useful for psychological dangers (e.g. rejection, failure, self-esteem). If we avoid those situations where we might fail, or be rejected or end up feeling worse about ourselves, we simultaneously avoid those situations in which we might succeed, connect with others, grow as a person. To achieve our goals, we have to put ourselves in situations which will cause us anxiety. Otherwise we stagnate.

When the fears we face are primarily psychological, an anxiety/approach mental model is actually more appropriate. We need to expose ourselves to the things we fear the most, because that is where the growth and meaning can be found. An anxiety/approach mental model doesn’t guarantee success, but when used judiciously (i.e. gradually exposing yourself to more anxiety provoking situations), it does build courage, competence and resilience.


Challenge and threat

The physiological reactions to challenge and threat are kinda similar and resemble anxiety/stress.

However there are subtle differences. In ‘threat’ situations, the body is preparing you to fight or run. Your thinking will become focused primarily on escape or tracking the source of the threat.

In ‘challenge’ situations, the body is preparing you for exertion and learning. It actually primes your brain to take on new information and ideas.

Often we err on the side of interpreting the physiological symptoms of stress/anxiety as a sign of threat. As you can imagine, this drives the anxiety/avoidance mental model described above.

However much of the stress and anxiety associated with study is actually a response to ‘challenge’. Thus a simple update you can make to your mental model of challenge and threat is that study situations are triggering your body into a state that is preparing you for the challenge of study, not to escape study.


How to learn

We all develop mental models about the best ways to study, learn, write and prepare for exams.

For example, we might view learning as a process of reading, highlighting and taking notes. We might view writing as a process of constructing sentences in our head and then getting them down on paper. We might emphasise the learning done the day before an exam as the most important.

The mental models we have about how to learn, will influence the mechanics of how we study.

Unfortunately, we are often mistaken about how learning, writing and preparing for exams is actually best done. For example:

  • Learning material is more about practising retrieving that material (e.g. self-testing), than it is about how many times we read or summarise it.
  • Writing is more about repeated cycles of write –> organise –> edit –> write –> organise –> edit etc than it is about writing from a perfect internal template.
  • Preparing for exams is more about the work you do in the months and weeks leading up to the exam, than the days before.

Thus most students (and I include myself in this list) could update their mental models around learning, writing and studying.

That is why we have the “Evidence-based study, writing and exam preparation tips” document which we are constantly updating that summarises the latest findings from cognitive science research on how we learn.


Why am I here?

When we ask students why they are studying, we get a range of responses.

Some have very specific explanations of why they are at university. It might be about studying a field they’ve wanted to study, developing their skillset further so they are more employable, getting the skills necessary to get a better job, or simply for the love of learning. Whatever the reason, they have a clear internal narrative/story/mental model about why they are here. This clear internal narrative helps sustain them during difficult study periods (e.g. ‘I don’t like exams but I really want to get my degree and get into the workforce’).

Other students are not quite sure why they are here. I was one of these students. If you’d asked me why I was studying a psychology degree, the best I could tell you was that I looked through the uni guide and thought ‘it looked interesting’. It wasn’t until later in my degree did I feel like I had a coherent mental model of why I was at university.

The lack of a narrative/mental model as to why you are at university can leave you more vulnerable to the difficult aspects of study. Why endure the less enjoyable parts of study (e.g. exams, assignments, being evaluated) if you aren’t clear as to why you are doing it?

Thus one mental model upgrade students can give themselves is clarifying what it is they hope to get out of the degree. To do this, try fast forwarding 5 or 10 years into your imagined future. What benefits or advantages do you think having your degree will give you?


Models of time

“I haven’t got enough time” is probably one of the most common things I hear used as an explanation for output or productivity or stress levels. I use this one regularly.

Your mental models of time can manifest themselves in some very subtle unhelpful ways.

  1. you focus primarily on amount of time (in hours) and ignore efficiency (how you use that time) when determining what you can get done. Rather than thinking about how to study more efficiently, you focus on simply how much time you have.
  2. you underestimate how much you can actually get done in short periods of time, meaning any 1/2 hour gaps between activities in your day get used poorly.
  3. you think other students are doing less study than they actually are and that the amount of time you need to study is abnormal.
  4. you assume that you should be able to juggle your schedule in your head, without planning it ahead of time and allocating certain tasks to certain times of the day.
  5. you don’t acknowledge that time spent recharging and re-energising (e.g. sleep) actually improves how efficiently you can use subsequent time and hence you discount the positive benefits of rest.
  6. you keep yourself ignorant of due dates as a way of excusing falling behind on assignments.

Now don’t worry if you think a couple of these apply to you. I struggle particularly with 4 and 2.

A key way of developing more accurate mental models of time and productivity are to engage in cycles of scheduling, review and re-scheduling. Keep a diary and try to allocate time for each aspect of your life. Experiment with different combinations and permutations until you feel that you’ve got a decent balance of being productive, resting and doing the activities that are most important to you.


Comparison with others

Admittedly, I often talk about university being a competitive environment. But I am not sure this is always the best mental model of the university to have.

For some it works well. They are motivated by trying to get the best grades in order to access limited positions in honours, masters or PhD programs. The scarcity of opportunities and competition for places works well for them.

But for others a competition model is paralysing and has negative impacts on their sense of self-worth and competence.

For them, a model of individual improvement and growth might be better, in which the goal is not the comparison with other students, but rather a commitment to ongoing improvements in their own performance. So instead of focusing on their grades compared to other students, they focus on whether their grades are improving over time.

Others might find a different mental model useful in coping with the human tendency to compare our performance against others.


Remember it is about how helpful a model is, not necessarily how accurate it is

You can roughly assess how good your mental models are by how successfully you are engaging with different aspects of your life.

For example, I know that my mental models in relation to work are decent, because I’ve managed to stay employed and tend to establish good working relationships with my colleagues.

But I know that my mental models in relation to friendships need work because it is an area in which I struggle more.

The realisation that you might have some faulty mental models is nothing to be ashamed of. We all have mental models of varying levels of helpfulness.

The good thing is our mental models can be updated.

If this topic takes your fancy, I strongly suggest you spend some time over at Farnam Street – Farnam Street is a website, blog, podcast and community of people who are interested in developing better and more effective mental models. You won’t just get mental models around mental health and wellbeing. They explore mental models in relation to general thinking, numeracy,  systems, the physical world, the biological world, human nature and judgement, microeconomics and strategy and military and war.

You can give your whole brain an upgrade 🙂

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