Models Are Killing People
How the brain’s natural attempt to simplify things puts people in danger.
Yes, I said models. No, we’re not talking stiletto wielding fashion divas.
Rather, this is a look at how the brain’s short cuts are creating fear, oppression, and bigotry the world over.
Misconceptions are blowing up buildings, organizing mass shootings, and locking children in cages due to the brain’s oversimplification of race, religion, and the perception of “Others.”
If you want a quick example. . . there’s currently an assumption about internet readers, mainly that people don’t do more than scroll through headers.
Now while this is true of a lot of people, it’s not true of all of them. It is after all just a model, an assumption of behavior based on limited information.
Kenneth Craik was the first to coin the term “Mental Model,” essentially shortcuts that the brain takes to make its life easier.
For instance, if I say “convenience store” you’ll an image of a store that sells a scattering of supplies from booze to candy, lotto tickets, cigarettes, and toilet paper.
Your mind has created a model of a convenience store. It may fit the above, it may not. It probably looks like whatever convenience store is most common to you.
Growing up in the country our local convenience store was referred to as “the Blues,” the gas pumps had drop-down tiles instead of digits, there was an old icebox and a staggering array of diverse items from watches to fishing tackle, milk, booze and movie rentals, all overpriced.
Before that in Anaheim a convenience store was a 7–11, now in Portland, with a few years under my belt it’s a hybrid gathering bits and pieces of road trips, the Blues and Plaid Pantry.
Models create expectations.
We use models in order to simplify our interaction with a system. Rather than have to figure it out as something new and unique we can run through a previously scripted interaction.
The clerk working the front end is going to look less than happy and probably way too tired.
I’ll have no hope of finding healthy food, and when I get to the front I’ll have to remind myself I don’t smoke cigarettes and am no longer interested in the rows of options behind the cashier.
With the exception of the cigarettes, not all of these expectations hold true.
I’ve been to convenience stores with vegetable and fruit options, even organic options. I’ve also seen cashiers who looked plenty happy
Models are often wrong.
A model is meant to simplify life, not capture the entirety of it. What makes this difficult is the brain doesn’t do a great job of updating our models.
It learns the expectation early on and it sticks to it regardless of how often we’re presented with counter-evidence.
This is because models serve a role for our brain.
They’re an oversimplification that the brain desperately needs. It simply doesn’t have the processing power to do better.
“The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.”
— Jay Forrester, 1971
The brain that can perfectly remember the shape of every continent is pretty rare. The one that can then draw borders, rivers, and mountains on each of those continents is even rarer.
The brain that knows each person on each of those continents doesn’t exist.
Models are a shortcut.
It’s not possible to house all the information and data we take in. So the brain makes a shortcut, it creates a model of the world.
Someone says “the world,” and the image floats up of a blue and green orb, maybe with white wisps of clouds. For some of you, you might imagine a sun, moon and the other planets in a solar system.
Others might imagine specific continents on display.
Other beliefs and premises might pop up with this word and model. Catchphrases encoded in the head like “it’s a dog eat dog world,” or “that’s just how the world is.”
Maybe the concept triggers a competitive edge, maybe you feel heartbreak at all the suffering.
Our models are subjective.
The model is unique to each individual, layered not only in cultural conditioning but time; the memory and moments of our lives.
If you’ve traveled you might bring bits and pieces of those travels into your world view. If you’ve never left your state or country the world might look more like the roads you’re used to driving and a vague realm of other places and people, punctuated by what you’ve read online or seen in the movies.
Models are never perfect but the brain relies on them.
No matter what our model is, it’s a simplification and that oversimplification is something the brain does often.
From our ideas of what a truck driver looks like, to the traits of women or men, what school is, or what the Amazon is like, our brains are filled with models.
Even the brain itself is a model to us. You probably get an image of a wrinkly organ, maybe it sparks here and there with thoughts.
Your mind might throw in some awareness of neurons, might think “left” or “right” brain, which is itself an outdated model that has historic interpretations proving less and less accurate as we study neural specialization.
Still, it’s a model most people are familiar with and which dictates many internal models of what a brain is.
The brain explores our world through models, and with good reason.
If we actually had to know or remember every detail about every person, place or thing we wouldn’t have the computational power to get out our front door in the morning, much less commute to work, work our 9–5, run our errands, take care of the family or dream of time for a hobby.
Models allow the brain to work quickly by making large assumptions that for the most part end up all right.
The problem is that because the brain is so used to using models it doesn’t realize when a model is horribly wrong. It just assumes that that model will work out just as well as any other.
This is how we can end up making some terrible assumptions about ourselves, our lives and the world.
Work becomes the thing you have to do no matter how much you hate it. You become the person that knows how everything’s going wrong but doesn’t have the willpower or courage to change it.
We get used to our models, our expectations and explanations of work, ourselves, even our relationships and how our day is going to go.
The truth is there are other job opportunities or possibilities, strategies to readjust your workload and refocus your energy.
And as for you and change, it isn’t a matter of willpower or courage, it’s knowing and implementing the right techniques.
I see clients beat themselves up all the time for “a lack of willpower,” when in reality they’re fighting the very physical and real stress response of their bodies.
They think it’s just a game of emotions or sensations when really it’s a battle with their very chemistry. A battle that can be won but takes more information and the right techniques.
When we work on putting that information and those tools to good use they make startling breakthroughs, doing things they didn’t think possible, because they changed their model.
How models become dangerous.
Models limit our expectations of what is possible and keep us focused on what the brain assumes is important, ignoring other important details that can help us better understand ourselves and others.
When applied socially models create the idea of tribalism. They separate “us” from “them,” often demonizing others and playing up the traits we find in common with our own tribe.
Men become the gender that’s emotionally distant and obsessed with sex. Women get cast as irrational or worse, clever and manipulative.
Liberals become communist snowflakes and conservatives become antiquated gun-toters with no heart.
Meanwhile, amongst their own, men talk about being more rational and level headed. Women talk about being more emotionally competent, better organized or more rational than the men.
Liberals feel better educated, more informed and socially conscious.
Conservatives feel like they have access to truer sources of information, whether that’s the bible, unbiased media or a better sense of morals, hard work and personal character.
Each and every one of these is a model created to help simplify what it is to be a man, a woman, a human.
Our models work so well for the brain that they actually begin to handicap us in our everyday lives.
We get stuck in our own routines, our own ways of doing things. We hear and say “that’s how the world is,” and treat the world just like that, stressing ourselves out running from 9–5 and beyond because that’s our model.
When the body starts to shut down we head to the doctors and pop some pills because that’s our model.
When we see a stranger on the street we treat them according to our model, whatever assumptions we have based on their clothes, skin color, apparent ethnicity or economic class.
Rising discrimination and hate crimes.
The world over the dangers involved with model ideation are becoming more and more apparent.
Refugees, immigrants and social “Others” are being targeted based off of the model expectations of specific citizens.
This year there, in America, there were considerably more violent acts perpetrated against ethnic minorities and religious communities such as Islam and Judaism.
FBI statistics of crimes motivated by discrimination have shown dramatic increases over the last few years.
Anti-Hispanic crimes have risen 42%.
Anti-Arab crimes have risen 175%.
Anti-Jewish crimes have risen 41%.
Anti-trans crimes have risen 32%.
And this doesn’t count crimes committed by the government itself such as the disproportionate murder and incarceration of African Americans by the US police force or the incarceration of refugees on the American border.
These acts are based on a broken model.
Someone has generated a view of entire populations based on misapplied information from the news, media, conspiracy books, their limited personal experience or their favorite politician.
They may think they are well informed due to a few sample cases read about or experienced, but in reality it is impossible for them to know every member of a community.
Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist estimated that the maximum amount of people that a person can recognize is 1,500. The maximum they can really get to know as friendly acquaintances are 150–200.
Meanwhile, I live in Portland, a metropolitan area of 3,160,488 people, in a country of a population of 326,474,000.
13.3% of that population is black. 15.2% of that American population is over the age of 65.
1% is Muslim.
That’s 43,000,000 million blacks, 49,500,000 people over the age of 65 and 3,264,740 Muslims.
When we talk about a group of people, it is literally impossible to know what we’re talking about.
The brain can not understand or comprehend a population that large. It is using a model it simply can’t perfect.
Which is how we get it so wrong, so very often.
Models are great for simple things but they fail at complexity.
Models can help us figure out where we are and how to interact with our environment when we’re tired but they simply don’t contain the information we need when it comes to anything important.
We need more information when it comes to the bigger decisions we make in our lives, like how to treat another person.
More so, we need to recognize our own cognitive limitations when we decide what to think, say or do to millions of other people.
How do we challenge our brains and break out of models when it’s important?
We take advice from the Queen!
“…sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
— The Queen, from Alice in Wonderland
The Queen here is challenging her model of reality. Entertaining impossible beliefs.
We don’t need to entertain the impossible per se, we just need to challenge our models and recognize that there’s a possibility that they’re wrong.
The first step, observe and challenge our models.
We can start off easy. Next time we find ourselves responding to a model or stereotype we can tell ourselves that we know that’s an oversimplification.
Say it out loud if you can or at least make sure to think the thought.
When the brain says oh that man or woman is like this, because. . .”
Tell it, “you’re oversimplifying to make things easier on yourself. They could be entirely different.”
Then think of the ways that this model can be wrong, what other possibilities are there?
Give this a few weeks practice, when you start to see your models popping out left and right research the ones that come up the strongest.
Get online or in the library and expose yourself to new information.
I need to stress here that in order to break your models down you need to expose yourself to information you’re not familiar with.
The Illusory Truth Effect is a confirmation bias that occurs when we are exposed to the same set of claims over and over again. It’s how so much of this Islamophobia, immigrant persecution, and racism is popping up in our country.
The same stories get circulated over and over. Every time there’s a negative experience of Islam around the world the news covers it in mass.
Meanwhile, no one covers the good things done by well over a billion other Muslims.
If you want to break your models you need to expose yourself to new information, you don’t have to believe it all, but do try to at least touch it and give it some careful consideration.
Dive into the subjective.
Research hard facts and data that doesn’t get reported but also read biographies and personal stories.
Lots of people consider themselves data-driven, but everyone has their own sets of data points.
We can call out numbers till we’re blue in the face and it won’t do anything in a discussion when someone else is operating under the assumptions of their models.
Knowing personal stories breaks through the assumptions of models. It gives life to the numbers and engages a different part of the brain, a part that is less model-oriented and more story-oriented.
Humans have an immense capability to care about characters. Thanks to Disney and Pixar we love our aliens, monsters, toys and even our emotions. All because we see them as human, so much like us.
Give faces to the numbers through a story and you’ll find people start to listen more and leave their models behind.
So if you find yourself making assumptions about immigrants.
Read the accounts of refugees and second-generation immigrants.
Have a problem with drug addicts?
Read the latest research on addiction and the personal stories of addicts themselves.
Think the other political party is insane?
Read some of their mild news sources (no one needs to have a stroke) then read an outside perspective like the BBC or other media sources around the world.
Better yet, try and find a place where people are expressing why they hold their views and the personal stories that go with those.
Expose yourself to new information that challenges your models and reminds you over and over again that there’s just too much information for us to ever lump millions or even hundreds of thousands of people together in a catch-all model.
Share your findings.
Finally, when you have some good research under your belt, share it. When you hear other people operating in model type thinking try to expose them to new information.
No need to get overly zealous about it, they’re doing the same thing we all do, but we can help challenge those models and show there’s more information out there.
Rather than saying “that’s just not right. X isn’t like that,” through our research, we can say, “I was reading a biography the other day and the story of a member of X was very different from what I expected.”
Our brains cheat. They don’t have the resources necessary to try and remember all the information they have on a subject. Neither do they know everything about that subject.
By making models, brains create quick ways to make assumptions so that they can act.
This is fine and dandy for the simple things in life, but. . . they get things wrong, which can lead to some real problems when things get more complicated.
When it comes to big decisions in our lives or world views, we need to challenge our models and accept the fact that we can’t know everything.
Our minds and brains are limited, so rather than make assumptions we can better inform ourselves and hold space for everything we do not know and can’t understand.
Giving ourselves and others the benefit of a doubt, or better yet, faith that people are mostly good.