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: Why We are Mostly Emotional, and Sometimes Rational

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Over the course of our lives many of us will have gotten into arguments with friends, family or loved ones which goes somewhat along the lines of:

“You are not thinking, can you hear yourself? You need to stop being so hard headed and stubborn, and just listen to the facts. Can’t you just be a bit more reasonable!?”

Notice how we are quick to charge others of being irrational or unreasonable. However, we rarely look inwards at our own internal biases or lapses in thinking. Moreover, we tend to think that we are free from emotion and are able to make decisions on a purely rational or logical basis.

Perhaps, we even periodically ponder that if more people were to just overcome their passions and desires, and think with their head instead of their heart, we would all be better off.

An Old Debate: Reason vs Emotion

For centuries, philosophers have been debating whether reason or emotion was the dominant force in human decision making. Thinkers from Plato to Immanuel Kant praised the rational part of the mind while having contempt for our baser passions, drives and emotions. Others such as David Hume claimed that “reason is a slave to our passions.”

So, who was right in more accurately modelling human decision making?

Evidence from modern psychology points towards the latter view. Emotions come first, and reason is secondary. This makes sense if you think about the history of humanity from an evolutionary and developmental perspective. For hundreds of millions of years our ancestors deployed automatic processing and intuitive thinking to navigate the world around them. It was only when we began to develop and use language, around one million years ago, that we acquired the ability think in a systematic or logical way.  

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between two different types of cognition – System 1 and System 2.

  • System 1 (Emotion): This is our intuitive judgements about events or our ‘gut feelings.’ It requires low effort and is automatic. Our minds often have the tendency to jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence.  We construct stories to justify our decisions based on the information we have and what is currently available to us. This makes us susceptible to a whole range of biases and heuristics. Kahneman uses the concept of ‘What You See is All Their Is’ to explain our ability to have overconfidence in the information already known to us rather than searching for alternative ideas or opinions. Similarly, we also are inclined towards confirmation bias which is the idea that we are more likely to accept new information which confirms our existing beliefs, and ignore evidence which contradicts our views. [1]
  • System 2 (Rationality): On the other hand, we also have another mode of cognition which is responsible for rational thinking. In contrast to our automatic intuitive judgements, deliberate logical thinking takes a lot more effort. It is slow and methodical. Activating System 2 thinking requires attention and focus. System 2 is capable of high-level abstract thinking, enabling us develop and test models and theories which help us better understand the world around us. 

Elephant and the Rider Metaphor

Jonathan Haidt created a useful metaphor of someone riding an elephant which can help us understand the interaction between these two systems. The elephant represents our emotions while the rider symbolizes the rational part of the mind.

The rider can do several useful things to guide and shape the path for the elephant. It can set intentions, goals and provide a set of clear instructions. However, when there is conflict between these two, it is pretty clear who will have the upper hand – the elephant of course.

Despite our best intentions, many of us may be able to recall situations when we said or did something that we had no intention of doing. Our passions got the best of us.

Unfortunately, looking at the current events of today, with all the outrage and fiery debates we see on various media platforms, it seems like we are giving our elephants (our emotional mind) steroids. 

The Importance of the Environment

Given the significance of rational thought in advancing humanity and moving towards progress, how do we give reason a chance is prevailing in our personal development or public discourse?

One thing we can focus on is shaping our environment, and limiting the opportunities of us engaging in unintentional acts or becoming overwhelmed by our emotions.

If you want to have a productive work environment the first thing one ought to do is remove all possible distractions from the room. You don’t want to be in a room with a television or with your noisy roommates.

The same holds true for when we want to shape a more balanced and nuanced public sphere or hold more productive dialogues with others who share different views. Unfortunately, much of what happens in the digital sphere and from media isn’t conducive to truth and fact but rather clicks, views and profit.  Our attention is for sale. This is not to say we should completely disengage, but rather use the information we gather from these sites with a degree of prudence and reservation.  

In his book Enlightenment 2.0, Joseph Heath urges us all to slow down and think. Complex policy issues can not be accurately articulated in short sound bites, 280 characters or from passionate monologues from your favourite news anchor. Nuanced detailed analysis will most likely not come from your social media feeds. Rather it requires the hard work of comparing and contrasting different viewpoints and arriving to conclusions which are based on evidence, not assumptions.

Just like a good scientist testing, validating and proving their hypothesis, we can all benefit from a bit less certainty in our own views and opinions.

Humility, sensibility and empathy must serve as the backbone of good public dialogue – not arrogance or pride.      

Politics should be about cultivating intelligence rather than demeaning it, building on experience rather than going with our gut feelings.

Joseph Heath, Enlightenment 2.0

Collective Intelligence

To fix our internal cognitive biases our proclivity towards emotional thinking, we have to rely on the wisdom that the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’ We all have individual flaws and lapses in judgement, but these can be identified and resolved when we have the opportunity to have open and honest conversations with others. As Haidt states in his book The Righteous Mind,

We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. This is why it’s so important to have intellectual and ideological diversity within any group or institution whose goal is to find truth.

The path that lies ahead of us in our deeply divided frantic world is not an easy one, but we can start to repair fractures in our discourse and work towards the common good one constructive conversation at a time.

We all must find a way for the elephant and the rider to work together.


[1] You can view some of the most common cognitive biases here

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The Polarization Series: A Path Towards Restoring Good Faith Dialogues

Our current age is one riddled with several apparent contradictions and paradoxes.

Despite access to an almost unlimited flow of information, we are less certain of what is true. Further, we have a more difficult time in discerning fact from fiction, and rarely look to sources outside of our narrow ‘information ecosystems’.

The Enlightenment and the rise of objective scientific inquiry was supposed to rid us of superstition and group think. It promised to place reason at the bedrock of society and ensure that rationality and logic would be the basis for decision making.

So where did we go wrong, and why are we currently faced with so much polarization and division unable to come to a consensus on the most basic of facts?

Rather than exercising our freedom to think independently, we are moving closer and closer towards conformity and dogmatic thinking. As more issues become politicized, society sorts into its respective teams or ideologies insisting that those who don’t agree with us on certain issues are either blindly naïve or ignorant. It is the mentality that you are either with us or against us.

Yet, we are all exhausted by all the outrage and constant bickering of who is right or wrong on contentious issues.

Can’t we all just get along, be kind and give each other a hug (well maybe after the pandemic)?

To look at these issues I want to draw from the work of Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind:  Why Good People are Divided over Politics and Religion and other research to look at why we have such a hard time discussing political issues.

This series of articles will focus on the following themes, exploring how:

  1. We aren’t as ‘rational’ as we think, and we rarely can get someone to change their view with a more logical or coherent argument. Emotion has the upper hand in our thinking and  Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is a good example the fight between reason vs emotion.
  2.  We all share the same moral foundations, but differ in which morals and values we prioritize (Moral Foundations Theory).
  3. Evolution can explain our tendency to sort into groups or teams. As Haidt puts it, morality binds and blinds.
  4.  We can restore good faith dialogue and compromise. The key is transcending the strict dichotomy of black\white or good\evil type thinking and being able understand the wisdom and truth found in many different positions or perspectives.

Hopefully this series will convince you to look critically at your own opinions, and look to others who share different views with a bit more kindness and understanding.

Real dialogue is when two or more people become willing to suspend their certainty in each other’s presence.

David Bohm

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