Experience Bias and Mental Models

by Marc Rounsaville on February 7, 2012

Experience is a good thing, right? We want our leaders to experienced; it is required in many professions in order to get a license or certification – from real estate to medicine.  Who would want a surgeon to not be experienced? Most business leaders have decades of experience. There is overwhelming evidence that inexperienced drivers have more accidents than those with experience. Pick a sport, a profession, an activity; experience has value, often a lot of value.

Remember the first time you tried to do something new?  Drive a car, change a tire or upload a file on your computer? It probably took a long time, mistakes were made and you finally got it done. Now what about the next time or the tenth time?  It got much easier, right? You could do it almost without thinking. You learned how.  Your brain built a model, a “mental model”.

You didn’t have to sit down with your brain and make a model.  It just did it without you knowing it.  You couldn’t have stopped if you had wanted to. But why would want to stop it? Mental models are helpful, they simplify complex tasks, and they allow us to function efficiently and effectively in a very complex world. Tie your shoe, cross the street, or drive to the store – mental models help you do these things without consciously thinking about them. This allows your conscious brain to think about something else, like a computer your brain has programs, mental models, running in the background.

In other situations mental models and experience help to keep us safe. We know the stove is hot without having to “learn” it every time. We often avoid insects and snakes and other creatures because our mental models tell us they may hurt us, even though we may not have ever seen that particular species before.

I came across this video the other day and it does a remarkable job of showing how our experience bias – our mental models if you will – impact the way we see the world. Face recognition is deeply embedded within our psyches.  It is arguably one of the strongest mental models we possess. It helps to form the initial bond between mother and child. This video does not use trickery, it lets your brain do that and even when you know what is happening you can’t stop it.

Have you ever looked for something and finally found it in plain sight? The book you were reading?  Or the file folder that seemed to vanish? I was looking for a set of documents that I just knew were in a manila envelope.  I had throughly searched the office, file cabinets and backpack. It could not be found. I stopped myself and suspended looking for the brownish manila envelope and reprogramed myself to look for an envelope large enough to hold the documents. It took literally seconds to find it in the back of the file cabinet where I had looked at least 3 times. Very powerful: you only see what you are looking for.

Or another way to think about it — you only see what your mental model(s) will let you see.

So experience is good, right? Most of the time.  Just know and remember our experience bias and mental models are there and are very covert. We may not know when they shift things around. Remember we will see what we are looking for and often what we are looking for is programed by our subconscious.

When have your mental models kept you safe?

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