Shaping how we think

Yesterday there was intrigued by an article in the New York Times asking the simple question – does our language shape our thoughts (Deutscher, 2010)? In the article Deutscher discussed how our native language will assign different constructs, such as of gender to inanimate objects, which in subtle ways frame how we include these objects in our thoughts. These gender attributions may also affect how we interact with people based on gender.

This article got me thinking about other mental models. I am currently listening to an audio version of Doubt: A history: The great doubters and their legacy of innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson, by Jennifer Hecht (2004). Hecht points out how some of the ancient Greek philosophers had problems in believing in a god who created the world. They asked what tolls, levers, or machines would he use for such a construction? What workspace would there before the development of land and space? These philosophers were constrained by a set of mental constructs that were limited to a specific plain of reality, and specific mechanical solutions. They could not conceive of a god who did not need arms and legs to move, who could exist outside the rules of a mechanical world, or for whom time was not a limiting factor.

We are all victims of our own mental models. Most of us don’t even realize that we use mental models. However, as odd and out there are as this may sound – we can’t handle reality. We are presented with mountains sensory input and raw data each day – and these inputs and data are only a small window on a larger reality. For the most part we function by applying rules of thumb and attempting to discover patterns that we recognize in the limited data that we can perceive. But, the simple fact is our business and our lives are based on the interaction of far too much data for us to even perceive, never mind deal with directly. Therefore, the only way to function is to have a handy set of mental models to short cut the process.

But which mental models do we choose? No matter how sophisticated a model we develop, our model will never match reality perfectly, and it is unlikely we will even fully recognize what the short comings are. So if we are incapable of dealing with reality without mental models, we must be vigilant in assessing if our current models are limiting us more than others. Again, we cannot be perfect in this the best we can hope for is occasionally avoiding catastrophe by identifying what  seem to be the most critical factors of our environments and monitoring those factors. Again, this is not easy. We have to deal with what we assume to be factors, and question whether these factors are simply symptoms of some other set of factors.

Put in to practical terms. Question your reality. Question your rules of thumb, and ask what environmental factors allowed these rules to work in the past. Ask what environmental factors are changing. Finally, ask your self has your past experiences and current mental models created a dangerous bias in your thinking.


Deutscher, G. (2010, August 26). Does Your Language Shape How You Think? The New York Times. Retrieved from

Hecht, J. M. (2004). Doubt: A history: The great doubters and their legacy of innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. New York, NY: HarperOne.


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