Mental Models and Dangerous Expectations

by Mike Shipulski

Mental Models and Dangerous ExpectationsExpectations result from mental models and wants. When you have a mental model of a system and you want the system to behave in a way that fits your mental model, that’s an expectation. And when you want the system to behave differently than your mental model, that’s also an expectation. When the system matches your wants, the world is good. And when your wants are out of line with the system, the world is not so good.

Speculation is not expectation.

Speculation happens when you propose, based on your mental model, how the system will behave. With speculation, there’s no attachment to the result, no wanting it to be one way or another. There’s just watching and learning.  If the system confirms your mental model, the applicability of the model is reinforced (within this narrow context.) And when the system tramples your mental model, you change your mental model. No attachment, no stress, no whining, no self-judgement.

When doing work that’s new, system response is unknown. Whether the system will be exercised in a new way or it’s an altogether new system, metal models are young and untested. When it’s the first time, speculation is the way to go. Come up with your best mental model, run the experiment and record the results. After sitting in data, refine your mental model and repeat.   If your mental model doesn’t fit the system, don’t judge yourself negatively, don’t hold yourself back, don’t shy away. Refine your mental model and build-test-learn as fast as you can. And if your mental model fits the system, don’t judge yourself in a positive way. This was your first test and you don’t understand the system fully. Refine your model and test for a deeper understanding.  [Note – systems have been known to temporarily conform to mental models to obfuscate their true character.]

When doing work that’s new, expectation gets in the way.

If you expect your models to be right and they’re not, you learning rate is slower than your expectations. That’s not such a big deal on its own, but the rippling self-judgement can be crippling. Your emotional state becomes fragile and it’s difficult to keep pushing through the work. You doubt yourself and your abilities; you won’t put yourself out there; and you won’t propose radical mental models for fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. You won’t run the right experiments and you never the understand the fundamental character of the system. You block your own learning.  If you expect your models won’t to fit the system, you block your learning from the start. Sometimes your lack of confidence blocks you from even trying. [Note – not trying is the only way to guarantee you won’t learn.]

Within the domain of experiments, mental models and generic systems, it’s relatively easy to see the wisdom of speculations and the perils of expectations, where wanting leads to judging and judging leads to self-blocking. But it’s not so easy to see in the domain of life where experiments are replaced with personal interactions and generic systems are replaced with everyday situations and mental models are ever-present. But in both domains the rules and consequences are the same.

Just as in the lab, in day-to-day life expectations are dangerous.

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shipulskiMike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.

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