What is a mental model (why would I care)?

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What the heck is a mental model (and why would I care)?

There are at least two separate brain systems that can generate behavior. One of those systems uses mental models and understanding how they work can be a powerful asset in your training and competition performance.

A mental model is a simplified representation of the world. It’s like a summary. How your brain builds it’s own mental model of something complicated in the world influences how you perceive the world and ultimately how you act.

Here is a basic summary of how a mental model works.

Suppose you are searching for an article in Cleanrun and you remember that it was in the edition that had a Bouvier on the cover. The fact that you have a mental model of the Bouvier on the cover lets you screen out nearly everything else as you flip through magazines until you see a dog that looks like a Bouvier.

A good mental model is an efficient search-engine that lets you quickly screen out other things that aren’t pertinent so you can find what you are looking for, make decisions, and take action.

But what If your mental model is wrong? What if it’s actually a Pug on the cover? Understanding the implications of how mental models work (for better and worse) will enable you to train and perform with a whole new level of insight. There are 5 key implications of your brain using this type of system to deal with real-world complexities. Looking at how a wrong mental model impacts your perception, decision making and behavior illustrates why this insight can be so valuable.

1) Because your mental model tells your brain what to pay attention to, it will screen out other information as not pertinent. It doesn’t fit the model. In this example, your mental model biases you to “not bother reading all the text on the front cover, just find the Bouvier”. You will tend to not even see the text, even if you look right at the article name.

2) Also you are very unlikely to conclude that your mental model was off, you are much more likely to come to some erroneous conclusions. If you can’t find a magazine with a Bouvier, your first thought will be to look around the house for it, maybe conclude “I must have taken it to class” (even if you never take your magazine to class, even if you don’t go to class) before you consider that maybe it wasn’t a Bouvier on the cover.

3) Even when you don’t see any cover with a Bouvier on it, when you go through them again more carefully, you’ll still have trouble finding the article. You notice what you expect to see. You see what makes sense and what makes sense is what matches your mental model. The article name was not in the mental model, so it’s going to be hard to recognize.

4) Not only that, there is a pretty profound emotional component to matching the model with the world (relief, satisfaction, joy). There is also an emotional component to failing to match (confusion, frustration, dejection). For example, not having any luck finding the magazine, you are more likely to conclude “well it was probably a stupid article anyway” out of frustration, even though originally it was worth searching for, for an hour.

5) And finally, and most insidiously, there is a master default emotional bookmark that works implicitly (outside of thoughtful functions) to match up mental models and reality. This is hard to explain without delving into one of the other systems the brain uses to generate behavior, but suffice to say, your brain works subconsciously to create a reality that matches your mental models. (insert spooky background music here).

Ok, so that illustrates the pros and cons of a mental model but to understand how this affects your agility performance better, look at the implications of your own mental models. Building mental models is a normal function of how our brains work but what specifically gets built depends on your individual brain.

“I can never get through a course without making some mistake” or “my dog is too fast for me” or “it’s her job to find the weave entry” or “he’s a tunnel sucker” or “I love serpentines”. These are all statements of mental models; simplifications of the world that influence your perception, decision making, and behaviors. You can take any mental model and evaluate it by looking at the implications for better and worse.

Love serpentines? You’ll be more likely to search for serpentines on course, more likely to select that handling option, more likely to practice them and perfect unusual configurations, more likely to try them and feel good when folks notice you “going for it”, more likely to get better at them. But you are also less likely to see an option that might work better and more likely to conclude (if something goes awry) that your dog made a mistake rather than consider that the serpentine was not a good strategy in that situation. You are more likely to under-practice other handling options because you can always do a serpentine. More likely to resist learning other skills (such as doing blind crosses) that conflict with doing serpentines.

Feel like you always make some handling mistake that prevents a Q? People tend to take in information that confirms their mental models. In this example, the handler notices their mistakes. They can hardly remember what went right on course but are super attuned to what went wrong. Days later they can still recall and kick themselves over something they did. Because they do, they keep experiencing the emotions of frustration etc. They “feel” resigned to the fact that that they are just lucky if they don’t screw something up. They have built implicit learning of feeling like they don’t perform well in competition. And now the brain can use the master default bookmark that unconsciously works to match reality to the mental model.

By accepting as a given that any fault is caused by handler execution, you might be overlooking an issue with your strategy or maybe a training opportunity. You might conclude that you won’t do some handling maneuver because it never works or you might be prone to superstitious handling where you begin to do something that worked one time before. You may never trust your handling and keep trying new things to see what will be your magic bullet, perhaps not taking the time to train their dog how to respond.

Let’s say you have a mental model of your dog being too excited to be accurate. Intellectually I might be frustrated by my lack of Q’s but I actually get some satisfaction from a chaotic, crazy run because it matches my mental model. Then lets say, my dog has a perfect run, nails every contact accurately – guess what I am most likely to do? I will come off the course intellectually happy with the Q and at the same time in the back of my mind, worry that I have slowed my dog down. I would feel as if I need to amp them up to recreate the chaos which is unconsciously satisfying. No kidding – it really works that way!

So those are some examples of what a mental model is and why you might care.

Undoubtedly some of your mental models are great ones. They are working to efficiently help you process information, make decisions and take action that enhances your agility training and performance. Some may not be serving you well. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your mental models.

1) Learn about mental management. There are books and blogs and websites devoted to the topic. You may have to study this aspect of agility and try different things to see what works best for you.

2) Write down your mental models. Not sure what mental models you have? Pay attention to how you describe your runs, your training, your dog. Write down the actual words you use when you are talking to others – they provide great clues as to how you summarize or categorize the complexity of your agility experience. Write down what you think and feel, not what you know you are supposed to think and feel. You are not trying to deceive yourself “I am a genious and my handling is magical!”, you are trying to build accurate models of your current reality so you will notice important input, make good decisions, and take appropriate action.

3) Evaluate your models against the implications listed above. Take note of the positives and negatives and how your mental model is working for you and maybe not-working for you.

4) If you suspect that a mental model is wrong. If it is outdated or doesn’t match reality well, keep an open mind and be willing to revise it. Take the time to think about how it is influencing your perception, feel how it is affecting your training plans and priorities, document how it is driving you to make decisions that are holding you back or moving you in a direction you don’t want to go. If you want to revise a poor mental model, you may find it easier if you embrace the implications of it.

5) Whether or not you like the mental models you have, you can always create new ones that are helpful to your agility. Some people are better at this than others. It takes awareness and then practice to be good at it. Creating, maintaining and updating mental models is a skill – exactly like any other skill that you need for agility.

6) Create mental models that will be helpful in steering you toward a future that you want. You don’t have to restrict your mental models to the present (in fact you already have mental models of the future). These forward-looking mental models trigger the same subconscious processes already discussed and your brain will strive to match reality to your mental models.

7) When you create a mental model, try to describe it in terms of what you do, will do, are doing, instead of what you don’t want to do, won’t do, wish you wouldn’t do. This enables your subconscious to start helping you out in matching reality to the model.

A personal example of one of my mental models, how it works for me, what I need to do to make sure it always does.

Here is a personal example as a last illustration. Coming up with a good handling strategy is a complicated process in real life. I have a mental model, or a simplified schematic of how this works. I believe that taking the time to figure out what information my dog needs from me before I decide what information I am going to give her is key to me coming up with a good handling strategy. That is one of my mental models.

My mental model helps me to notice little details and nuances about the course and what my dog needs from me as a handler. It helps me sort through various handling options, and feel confident that what I select is likely to give my dog the best information I can give. I like the feeling of going to the line knowing I have come up with the best strategy I can for my dog. As I go through the walk through, I feel good going through this process (because reality is matching my mental model). I get reinforced for doing it and so I do that on every run (even if I wouldn’t have to). My mental model has created behaviors (the way I walk a course, how I plan my strategy) that helps to make sure I go to the line confident, and with a well-thought-out handling plan. This is a mental model that is working for me.

I will only need to guard against my model becoming outdated and be aware of some of the down-side implications. For example, if I miss my walk through, I might be so disoriented because reality isn’t matching my mental model, that I panic unnecessarily. Knowing this is a possibility, I can quickly update my mental model to match reality (no time for walk through) and I can use other models as back up (such as going through the same steps from the side of the arena visualizing the course from there, or from the course map).

The more aware I am of this very interesting brain function, the better I can use it to my advantage. I hope this article might help you too.