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.   

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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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The Polarization Series: The Power of Listening

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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

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The Polarization Series: The Search for an Integral Politics

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More often than not, we are lured into the temptation of conformity and group think. As social animals we care deeply about the opinions of others. We concern ourselves with our relative position and status within society. At our core, we all want to fit in and gain approval of our peers and respective groups that we are associated with.

Group evolutionary adaptation, which enabled us to temporarily forego selfish self-interest in pursuit of the greater good of our communities is both a blessing and a curse. While this drive motivates us towards mutual co-operation within groups it can pull us towards antagonism and tribal politics between groups.

Of course, this has become evidently more apparent in our society with rising polarization in our politics and the general decline in the quality of public discourse. On issues that are of high importance to us, we tend to be unwilling or unable to understand potential criticisms of our view. We remain deeply rooted in our positions, dumbfounded by the counter arguments of our adversaries.

Morality binds and blinds. This is not just something that happens to people on the other side. We all get sucked into tribal moral communities. We circle around sacred values and then share post hoc arguments about why we are so right and they are so wrong. We think the other side is blind to truth, reason, science, and common sense, but in fact everyone goes blind when talking about their sacred objects.

Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

Breaking the Deadlock

So how can we go beyond these rigid political and ideological narratives that we find ourselves entrenched in?

How can we find a way to find a truce between these different ideological tribes?

In order to do so, the first thing that we must acknowledge is that each worldview has both positives and negatives. There is always a trade-off. For instance, policies which promote greater economic liberty and reliance on the free market (i.e. free trade) may collectively increase GDP while leaving certain groups of low-skilled workers worse off.

Additionally, each set of paradigms or beliefs has at least some degree of truth. That is not to say that each of these worldviews is equal or that one can not be categorically better than another. Rather, it is to argue that there is always some signal within the noise. While we may disagree with others on certain issues, if we remain objective and modest we can see that beyond someone’s beliefs they may have good and honest intentions. Perhaps they hold their view simply because they think it is what is the best for themselves or their loved ones.

An Integral Approach

Everybody — including me — has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.

Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything

The basic premise of integral theory is that we ought to seek to integrate different perspectives by incorporating the positives and discrediting the negatives of each paradigm.[1] Rather than rigidly maintaining our fixed ideologies, the integral approach advises that we approach new ideas with a sense of humility and curiosity.

In disagreements with those with opposing views, we can ask ourselves, what are the areas of convergence?

A useful way to conceptualize this approach is by thinking of how venn diagrams work, that is they highlight the areas of intersection and differences between various sets of concepts or ideas.    

Venn Diagram.

As an example of how we these can work in the real world, let’s look at a model developed by the integral philosopher Steve McIntosh in his article Towards a Post-Progressive Political Perspective.

 McIntosh claims that three major worldviews characterize our world’s different values and belief systems, and each consist of both both positives and negatives. These paradigms (ways of seeing the world), along with there pros and cons can be seen in the chart below.


WorldviewCharacteristicsPositivesNegatives
TraditionalismAssociated with social conservatism. Seeks to preserve traditional values such as one’s duty to family and country.Acts as a social ‘glue’ which binds individuals together through a common set of beliefs.Can disregard the rights and values of vulnerable minorities, and lead to the oppression of these groups (i.e., racism, sexism, homophobia).
Modernity  Promotes individual liberty and political and economic freedom.  Has led to unprecedented economic growth within the past few centuries.  

Resulted in a shift towards government which respects the rights of individuals, and led to the emergence of democratic institutions.
Prioritizes economic growth over environmental concerns leading to biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and climate change.
Progressivism  Connected with advocacy and social reform. Concern for the protection of the environment. Focus on the rights of vulnerable groups within society.  

Inclusive world-centric morality which aims to address inequalities within society.
Divisive identity politics which disregard any benefits that traditional values may bring.  

Can lead to relativism which claims that no one system is better than others, making it difficult to promote consensus or social cohesion.
Based on Steve McIntosh’s article: Towards a Post-Progressive Political System

McIntosh argues for a system called post-progressivism which seeks to provide a synthesis of these three paradigms by integrating the benefits and disregarding the negatives. For instance, this can include policies which promote the use of business and the free market to develop innovative technologies to curb climate change. Moreover, it can recognize the past injustices of Western colonization while appreciating the economic liberty and scientific progress modern society has brought us.  Moreover, these individual freedoms and innovations can be leveraged as a mechanism to promote greater equality for historically disadvantaged communities.

Integral Consensus

The key to moving forward is to cultivate a sense of intellectual humility and resist the temptation towards group or tribal thinking. Of course, there is nothing wrong with affiliating yourself to a particular political party, group or ideology. However, it becomes a problem when we stubbornly hold onto rigid beliefs without questioning their validity or assumptions.

We must both celebrate our differences as well as recognize our common humanity with others. Disagreements are inevitable, but we can always settle them in a respectful and cordial way. As society is pulled towards the extremes, we must always search for areas of consensus and convergence.

In an increasingly inter-connected world, our collective wellbeing depends on our ability to work together.

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[1] This is an oversimplification of integral theory which contains various stages and models of growth and development. For a primer on this work see Ken Wilber’s A Theory of Everything


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