Aug 15

The Eerie Power of Mental Models to Cloud Perception

One spring morning back in 2012, I was driving in College Park when I was pulled over by a University of Maryland campus policeman. I was not speeding so I did not know why I was stopped. The policeman explained that he stopped me because something fell off my front bumper. At the time, I did not understand what he meant and jumped out of the car because I thought my front bumper came off.

My front bumper was still attached which confused me more. The policeman explained that I did not have a license plate. Now, I had recently transferred my car registration from Kentucky to Maryland and attached the license plate to the back bumper that day. Actually, I received two license plates, so I put the second plate in the trunk. I thought I had received the second license plate as a mistake and didn’t think any more about it.

This is the power of mental models. Growing up in Kentucky, I had the mental model that license plates only were attached to the rear of vehicles. The few license plates that were on the front of the vehicle were vanity plates. Having once absorbed that mental model, I did not even think to question it or consider alternative mental models concerning license plates. Why should I?

This mental model was so powerful that I did not even notice – after four years of living in Maryland – that vehicles had license plates on both the front and rear bumpers. I probably observed front license plates, but I did not SEE front license plates. My mental model was so ingrained that I ignored the visual evidence that contradicted my proper-location-of-license-plates mental model.

Now, I notice front license plates. I told my friend Mike about this incident and helpfully points out front license plates for me when we are out driving. It is an annoying reminder on how mental models profoundly affect our perceptions of the world and can even blind us to contrary evidence. That is why it is vital in any change effort to understand the current mental models and then help people to realize their mental models before giving people new mental models.

What mental models affect how you perceive the world?