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 Pexels.com

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

Title Image Source

The Mysteries of Nature

Featured
I went out into the woods in search of God,
To seek shelter from the storm and find the divine within, 
To lose myself in wonder and awe gazing at the beauty of the trees. 

Like Nature's very own skyscrapers, their grandeur points towards the heavens, 
They diminish one's ego making us feel small in comparison to the vast cosmos. 

Illusive boundaries disappear as I fade into stillness, 
Worries flow seamlessly like the wind, 
Time lies at a standstill. 

As I stand alone in silence, the great mystery of existence emerges, 
It is beyond all logic and rational thought, 
Inexhaustible wonder supersedes the limited finite mind. 

As I gasp for air, the mystery slowly subsides, 
Until I meet it again,   
My next visit to the woods. 

The following poem I wrote is inspired by ideas in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture

The Ignorance of the Modern Man A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

An audio version of my poem the Ignorance of the Modern Man

The Polarization Series: The Power of Listening

Featured

Amidst the rise in digital technologies and new avenues for communication, the general quality of our public discourse has declined. As I have explored in this series, modern society has become increasingly fragmented and polarized. We are no longer able to search for areas of compromise or entertain opposing viewpoints.

The cause of the issue stems from our inability to truly listen to one another. In a culture that promotes individualism and self-righteousness, we are conditioned to enter into conversations with our own agenda, set of prejudices and biases. Rather than engage in the mutual pursuit of truth, we are more interested in pushing our opinion and influence onto others.

This mindset inhibits us from truly listening to and appreciating what others are saying. It blocks us off from other perspectives limiting the possibility of entering into a conversation openly, with the chance of changing our minds.

The physicist David Bohm makes an important distinction between dialogue and discussion, highlighting the key differences in these two modes of communication.

Dialogue vs. Discussion

Dialogue is centered around the shared flow of meaning and understanding between all those who are involved. The point is not to try to ‘win’ or ensure that your argument prevails, but rather to mutually search for collective wisdom and truth. This requires one to be adaptable and flexible, accepting that your original views may be wrong or ill-informed.

Good dialogue is sort of like jazz. It revolves around improvisation and spontaneity. Throughout their solos, each musician integrates the melody and phrases of the other band mates. It is a dynamic and collective process. The success of the band is determined by how well the musicians are in synch with one another. This demands that everyone listen closely to the tempo of the drums, the key of the band and the melodies of the other soloists.

Like jazz, the point of dialogue is to build off of the ideas of others, to be open-minded and fully listen to what is being said. When done correctly, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a win-win process for all participants involved – everyone gains.

On the other hand, Bohm characterizes discussions as communication which is aimed at preserving one’s point of view. Those engaging in a discussion are motivated towards persuading others to change their minds. As a result, it is framed more as a debate embodying win-lose dynamics, as the purpose is to have your viewpoint adopted by the group.

There is a time and place for each of these conversational styles. However, social cohesion is undermined and conflicts arise when our discourse becomes increasingly centered around debate, conflict and argumentation.

A consequence of this type of thinking is that we aren’t fully attentive to what others are saying. Further, we don’t validate or clarify that we have a mutual understanding of another’s point of view, leaving room for error and misinterpretation.

As noted by the renowned physicist David Bohm in his book On Dialogue,

Surprisingly, most people have never discovered how to listen, and instead spend most of the time whilst another is speaking working out what to say the moment he or she stops

Listening

To listen attentively or mindfully, is to be completely immersed in the conversation. It is to be aware of our automatic judgements, refrain from interjection and practice empathy. Just as in the practice of meditation where we mindfully and impartially watch our thoughts pass by, a genuine dialogue requires us to do the same when conversing with someone else.

The objective is to be aware and in control of your thoughts, feelings and emotions refraining from being reactive to the situation. It is to engage with openness and be receptive to what the other person is saying.  

When disagreements do arise, research indicates that changing someone’s mind is both rare and difficult. However, techniques do exist to help you navigate through conflict and arguments.

There is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument—and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattle-snakes and earthquakes.

Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People

Nonviolent Communication

Marshall Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication focuses on how we can navigate through disagreements through empathy and mutual understanding.

Underneath adversarial language and conflict, lies someone with unmeet human needs. Regardless of who we are, we all have a set of foundational human needs such as health, love, respect, trust etc. The issue is that rather than explicitly communicating these unmet needs, we direct our attention towards criticizing others or defending our views on a topic.

 A good metaphor to think of here is an iceberg. What’s visible to us is the immediate disagreement, while what’s uncovered is a broader set of phycological factors affecting and issues one’s mood and behavior.

Encouraging honesty and transparency, Rosenberg identifies four communication techniques to help us when dealing with difficult circumstances:

  1. Observation: Observe what you notice about the situation objectively and nonjudgmentally.
  2.  Feelings: Express our emotions and feelings clearly and in a thoughtful way.
  3.  Needs: Make a connection between the identified feelings and your unmet human needs. You may feel upset or angry at someone because their actions violated your needs of honesty and connection.
  4. Requests:  Make a specific request in a compassionate manner to rectify the situation based on the feelings and needs you have communicated. Of note, requests are never demanded. Rather, they are asked from a place of mutual understanding and respect for the other person.

All criticism, attack, insults, and judgments vanish when we focus attention on hearing the feelings and needs behind a message. The more we practice in this way, the more we realize a simple truth: behind all those messages we’ve allowed ourselves to be intimidated by are just individuals with unmet needs appealing to us to contribute to their well-being. When we receive messages with this awareness, we never feel dehumanized by what others have to say to us

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Conclusion

Genuine dialogue and discourse demands a shift from egotistical thinking to a focus on the collective wellbeing, emotions and needs of others. It changes the focus from the content of the conversation to the underlying feelings that are driving one’s behavior and attitude. Only through bringing awareness to the factors and emotions influencing our behavior can we begin to notice and change them.

As we chisel away at our own egos and silence the need to be right all the time, we can start to become more open and empathetic to the needs of others.

After all, we are all humans trying to live collectively on one planet. So rather than being prisoners to our automatic thoughts and emotions, we can all temporarily pause, take a deep breath and try to show some more compassion.

At the core of all anger is a need that is not being fulfilled

Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

Throughout the past year I’ve been introduced to different communication modalities from platforms like The Stoa and Rebel Wisdom, some of these include:

  1. The Circling Method
  2. Empathy Circles
  3. John Vervaeke’s work on Dialogos

Title Image Source