Beneath the Iceberg: A Look at Mental Models

Each of us views the world through our own unique pair of glasses. Our experience is shaped by what we pay attention to during our moment-to-moment existence. It is informed by our social conditioning, beliefs, values and the type of information that we actively seek out.

We don’t have access to the world ‘in and of itself.’ Rather, we view reality from our own subjective filters or mental models which help us interpret the vast amount of data available to us.

As Robert M. Pirsig explains in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,

From all this awareness we must select, and what we select and call consciousness is never the same as the awareness because the process of selection mutates it. We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.

Language, psychology, statistics and economics are all examples of mental models we have developed to help us simplify and understand the world around us. While there is a strong relationship between the models we develop and the outside world, these mental maps are always imperfect to some extent.  Consequently, we are thrown off-guard or are surprised, when events don’t neatly fit into our abstractions of how we think things ought to be. Due to the dynamic nature of the world, we are required to constantly draw new maps and update old assumptions to align with the latest findings and discoveries.

Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see

Peter Senge

In this article, I want to explore the importance of going beneath the surface or beyond what is directly observable to understand what drives behavior on an individual and societal level.

Events don’t occur in a vacuum but are the byproduct of the values, beliefs and mental models which underpin a particular individual or system.   

Photo by Mauru00edcio Mascaro on

Iceberg Model

The iceberg model is a good analogy to encourage us to look at situations more broadly, and assess system foundations. Namely, what we see on the surface is often limited and illusive. Most of the iceberg’s structure is hidden underwater. Similarly, while we are inundated with surface level issues and daily affairs in the news or media, we are less often exposed to the patterns of behavior or patterns of thought influencing these trends.

While the model has different variations depending on the source, for our purposes we will look at four layers of analysis.

  1. Events:  Events are what is visible to us (i.e. elections, stock market fluctuations, natural disasters). Exclusively focusing on this level of analysis can often leave us surprised and scratching our heads. Although they are the most noticeable, they often lack and predictive or explanatory power.
  2.  Patterns of Behavior: Commonalities and trends between a series of events.  Patterns of behavior look at long-term trends that occur within a system over time.
  3.  System Structures: At a deeper level of analysis, we get to system structures which influence the long-term trends identified. System structures can include rules, norms, or institutions  which are comprised of cause-and-effect relationships and feedback loops. Systems structures can help us better understand how the different parts of the system are connected through casual relationships (i.e. how adjusting system inputs will affect outputs).
  4. Mental Models: Mental models serve as the foundation of the iceberg. They are the values and belief systems which influence our thoughts and actions.

The Addiction Archetype

The iceberg model is a good tool which enables us to step back from our immediate circumstances, think critically and identify the root causes of our problems.

A potent example which characterizes many of our systemic issues we face in modern society is our addiction to short-term thinking and solutions. These may buy us time or give us immediate pleasure but ultimately lead us in traps making it more and more difficult to escape. Driven by instant gratification and short-termism, addiction takes many forms on both an individual and societal level.

Let us look at some more concrete examples:

  • A financial system built on cheap credit and speculation is increasingly volatile, less resilient and more susceptible to boom and bust cycles (events\patterns of behavior). Beneath the surface, we see institutions (system structures) which prioritize short-term profits over sustainability and human wellbeing (mental models). 
  • An individual develops an addiction to drugs (events\patterns of behavior) as a way to escape and avoid deeply rooted emotional issues and insecurities (mental models). Rather than address their deep-seated trauma, they turn to short term pleasure to alleviate the pain (system structures). 
  • A wishful consumer is knee deep in debt (event\patterns of behavior) as they play status games to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ through unaffordable luxury purchases (system structures). At a deeper level, this desire to spend is driven by the façade that consumer goods or status can bring us respect, meaning and genuine friendship (mental models).

Beneath the Surface

In every situation there is always something beyond what we can visibly see on the surface. Short-term shallow level solutions are like running in quick sand. They fail to address the root causes and keep us hooked in feedback loops which make it increasingly difficult to alter our course of action. Pulling out the roots and going deeper to the level of system structures and mental models provides more leverage for meaningful systemic change.

Lastly, in a complex, messy and often unpredictable world having the ability and foresight to constantly update your mental models will make you more adaptable and resilient. Honest, open and genuine conversations with others allows us to identify and attend to any potential blind spots in our thinking. Two minds are often better than one. Donella H. Meadows reminds to always seek feedback and constantly put our mental models out in the open for exposure and constructive criticism,

Everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be shot at. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own ………. Mental flexibility–the willingness to redraw boundaries, to notice that a system has shifted into a new mode, to see how to redesign structure — is a necessity when you live in a world of flexible systems.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer

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13 thoughts on “Beneath the Iceberg: A Look at Mental Models

  1. Hey Andrew,

    When you were writing about mental models and keeping them flexible, I couldn’t help but think about St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo and Plato, grand-daddy of idealism himself. One of the interesting things both of these guys did was decide that the perfection, static regularity and theoretical permanence of a mental model made said mental models superior to the vulgar and fallen world of sensible reality. The forms, in Plato, are superior to the things we can touch precisely because they can be made perfect in the abstract. The City of God, in Augustine, is superior to the City of Man precisely because the abstract notion of the former can be eternal and unchanging.

    I wonder what you think of this view.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very interesting, I admit I don’t have a fully fleshed out answer. One thing that does come to mind is Pirsig’s classification of static and dynamic quality.

      “‘Dynamic Quality’ is the term he gives to the continually changing flux of immediately-experienced reality, while ‘static quality’ refers to any concept abstracted from this flux. The term ‘Dynamic’ indicates something not fixed or determinate, which means that Dynamic Quality cannot be defined, and therefore a true understanding of it can only be given directly in experience.”

      Another example that comes to mind is as follows, in things like religion or culture, the tension between preserving its essence/fundamental values, while updating to remain relevant in a constantly changing world.

      It is a very interesting topic, wondering what your thoughts on this matter are?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Pirsig is definitely talking about a similar idea, though my favorite solution to the dynamic and static problem is actually from the Analects of Confucius (I’ll get back to that later, I promise).

        As for Plato and Augustine, my personal view is that they made a really poor decision. The choice to treat the ideal as superior to the apparent is, in my analysis, a surefire way to be unhappy in the stoic or Buddhist sense of the word.

        That is, according to the stoics and Buddhists, happiness is the state of expecting less than you get. If you are like Plato or Augustine, and spend all your time thinking of perfect and eternal ideas, you will by definition NEVER get more than you think should be. The Confessions of St. Augustine are, for this reason, one of the saddest things I’ve ever read.

        Okay, so back to Confucius. In the Analects, there’s an idea called 文質彬彬. I have no idea how to pronounce that in Chinese, but in Korean it would be “mun jil bin bin.”

        “文 mun” literally means “writing” but figuratively refers to ideals or models of reality. In other words, theory. We start with 文 mun because it allows us to investigate the world from within a framework.

        However, we must test our 文 mun theory with “質 jil.” 質 means quality in the sense of something being qualitative. The qualitative 質 allows us to improve our 文 mun theory by comparing the theoretical predictions/ideas against the real world.

        We then take our qualitative 質 information and use it to make a second generation 文 mun theory. The second generation theory allows us to make better predictions that we then use on a qualitative 質 that we understand better in order to make a third generation 文 mun theory.

        This cycle can continue forever because, Confucius argues, we can always get closer to the tao 道 – that is the universal principle – but we can never reach it. In other words, through the cycle of mun theory and qualitative jil we can always get BETTER, even if we never become perfect.

        The last two characters, the 彬彬 “bin bin,” means to shine brilliantly. By this Confucius meant that the cycle of theory and practice, continuing on forever, was a brilliant and beautiful way to live. Literally, a “shiny” way to be alive.


      2. Pirsig is definitely talking about a variation of idealism. Dynamic quality seems to be aligned to a sort of Heraclitean “strife” and “union of opposites” and “unending change.” Static quality is more aligned to the stuff Augustine and Plato were talking about.

        My personal view is that Plato and Augustine guaranteed misery for themselves in the stoic or Buddhist sense of the term. That is, in stoicism or Buddhism, happiness is the state of affairs where external reality is better than our expectations and misery is the state of affairs where external reality isn’t as good as our expectations. By wasting all their time thinking about “perfect” stuff, Plato and Augustine have ensured that external reality will NEVER exceed their expectations.

        My personal favorite way to think of this is to borrow from the Analects of Confucius. Confucius has an idea called 文質彬彬. I don’t know how that’s pronounced in Chinese, but in Korean it would be mun jil bin bin. Literally that means “theory and practice shine brightly.”

        What Confucius meant by this is that we should create a theory to understand the world. However, instead of expecting our theory to be perfect, we should use external reality to create a better, second generation theory. This theory allows us to test reality in a deeper way, which allows us to make a third generation theory, etc.

        The metaphysical root of this argument is shared with the stoics and goes like this:
        The universal principle (tao 道 for the Confucians, “nature” for the stoics), is real and is good. However, it is also fundamentally beyond our ability to grasp. As such, we are good and dutiful to the extent we approach closer to tao/nature, but happy and grounded to the extent we remember we’ll never achieve its perfection.


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    Liked by 1 person

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