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On Bias – A Better Model

There are plenty of highly credentialed scientists who can describe how people think. They can also explain how bias, in its many forms, threatens our fairness and accuracy when the stakes are high.

But some explanations represent an overly centralized focus on human weakness such that they trick us into ignoring the almost inconceivable capacity people have to make wise, accurate decisions even when coping with a scarcity of information.

Said another way, human beings may be biased, yes. But this inherent risk of being human pales in comparison to the innate cognitive and emotional advantages we apply in our lives and careers that render these biases inconsequential the vast majority of the time.


When strong ideas take root, they can sometimes crowd out competitors so thoroughly that alternatives can’t prosper. So, sometimes the best way to spark creativity is to disturb things just enough to let some light through.

Charles Duhigg
Smarter Better Faster
Random House, 2016

It’s about assumptions

The problem demanding our attention is not bias. Instead, the problem is our need to make assumptions.

Because assumptions are absolutely necessary in nearly every human endeavor, many researchers and consultants focus their curiosities toward two particular industries that expose their stakeholders to a unique set of risks: aviation and medicine.

In the field of aviation, poor assumptions get people killed, especially when made by pilots, air traffic controllers, or maintenance personnel. A pilot, for example, might assume that a previously successful pre-flight check is still valid and ignore warning signs of mechanical failure. Incorrect assumptions lead to misjudgments, miscommunications, and the overlooking of critical safety protocols, potentially resulting in catastrophic accidents and the loss of innocent lives.

In medicine, flawed assumptions compromise diagnoses, treatment plans, and patient care. Medical professionals may assume a current patient’s condition is similar to recent or memorable cases, unduly influencing their assessments. Evidence also shows that unconscious assumptions about a patient’s race, gender, or socioeconomic status can affect the quality and type of care provided. These assumptions can lead to misdiagnoses, inappropriate treatments, or unequal access to care, with direct and sometimes fatal consequences for patients.

But how do we go about preventing the damage caused by faulty assumptions when both the need to make assumptions AND the potential for catastrophe are so high?

To paraphrase the famous German researcher and philosopher, Eckhart Tolle, we tend to strengthen what we focus on. So, the key to enabling wise decision-making is to focus not on bias, but to raise the capacity of ourselves and our teams to make wise assumptions or, perhaps, recognize when the making of assumptions isn’t even necessary.

Here’s how we do it.

MENTAL MODELING

For all of the attention that great leadership and motivational gurus such as Tony Robbins, Dale Carnegie, and Stephen Covey have gained as contributors to the improvement of our species, a less-recognized but powerful voice is that belonging to journalist and New York Times Best-Selling author, Charles Duhigg. I often recommend to my clients and colleagues Duhigg’s breakout book The Power of Habit, narrated by voice actor, Mike Chamberlain, who also narrated my book, The New Superior.

Duhigg’s 2016 book, Smarter Faster Better, is among the most relatable and practical explorations of human decision-making and ability. He draws readers’ attention to the extensive scientific work on a psychological phenomenon called mental modeling.

Mental modeling refers to a psychological process where individuals construct internal representations or “models” of the external world. Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik wrote of mental models in his 1943 book “The Nature of Explanation,” where he proposed that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that enable better forecasting, problem solving, and decision-making. Mental models are shaped by previous experiences, knowledge, cultural norms, and individual beliefs, to name a few.

Mental models have since been applied across various domains, including education, human-computer interaction, healthcare, and more. It’s a concept that’s had a significant impact on cognitive science, artificial intelligence, and human factors engineering, contributing to our understanding of human thinking and behavior.

managing your mental models

The best professional coaches – whether focusing on life, career, or both – probe carefully to understand the existing mental models of their clients. This approach has utility because these models predict what successes or failures will be experienced in the future, and they often explain the challenges or problems that clients are facing in the present moment.

Below, I’d like to provide some tips for leveraging the concept of mental models for improving your own personal and professional effectiveness:

Be Aware of Your Mental Models
Mental models shape not only your understanding of the world around you but also how you perceive yourself, your responsibilities, and your roles in life. Your internal representations will often contain preconceived notions about what your roles should be, how you should act, and what responsibilities you should assume. In some instances, they can empower you to take on new challenges and align your actions with your values. In others, they might limit your potential or misguide you into roles that don’t truly fit your capabilities or desires.

Being consciously aware of how mental models are shaping your sense of self enable more authentic, deliberate choices. By reflecting on and possibly challenging these ingrained assumptions, you can redefine your roles and responsibilities in ways that align more closely with your true aspirations and strengths. This alignment can lead to greater satisfaction and success in various aspects of your life and work.

Challenge Yourself
Scrutinizing your own mental models requires a willingness to question your assumptions and an understanding of how these internal representations shape your thoughts and actions. Start by reflecting on a particular belief or decision-making pattern and ask yourself where these thoughts originate from. Are they based on past experiences, cultural norms, or something else? What representations do your responsibilities demand of you?

Consider seeking feedback from diverse perspectives to uncover blind spots. Embracing cognitive diversity and practicing empathy can help you see beyond your own limited viewpoint. Engaging in activities like critical thinking exercises or journaling can foster awareness of your mental models and encourage a more mindful, flexible approach to problem-solving and decision-making.

Enhance Your Professional Effectiveness
Applying these principles in your career can lead to more effective problem-solving, decision-making, and collaboration. Understand that mental models are not static; they can be adapted and refined with new information and insights. Stay curious and open to continuous learning, recognizing that as the world changes, your mental models must evolve to stay relevant. Embrace collaboration and seek different perspectives to enrich your understanding of complex issues.

Building accurate and adaptable mental models will enable you to respond to challenges with agility, promote innovative thinking, and enhance your overall effectiveness in your professional life.

Recognize Your Flaws
Recognizing when a mental model may threaten the quality of your decisions or actions is crucial to preventing harm or damage. A flawed mindset might lead you to repeatedly make the same mistakes or overlook important factors in a decision-making process.

To recognize these flaws, be committed to “high-resolution self-awareness.” Regularly review your decisions and actions, asking yourself if they align with your current understanding of the broader context. Encourage a culture of open feedback within your team or network, as others might see what you cannot. If you notice a pattern of errors or misjudgments, this may signal that a mental model needs to be reassessed and possibly revised. Recognizing and adjusting flawed mental models can significantly enhance the quality of your decisions and the success of your actions.

Mental Modeling for high-stakes Teams and oRganizations

Individual mental models affect individual behavior, but a collection of mental models among a group help to establish how a team or organization will function, especially under pressure. Below are some additional tips for maximizing team or organizational effectiveness:

Share your Understandings
By fostering an environment where team members openly discuss and examine their individual mental models, organizations can create a shared understanding that aligns with their collective goals and values. This alignment reduces misunderstandings, promotes transparent communication, and builds trust within the team. Encouraging employees to explore different perspectives and question assumptions ensures that everyone has a clear, consistent understanding of the organization’s mission and their role in it.

Trustworthy teams are built on this common understanding, in which everyone knows what to expect from one another and how to work together effectively. Leaders, therefore, must prioritize conversations in which this sharing is likely to occur. No mental model is immune from scrutiny.

Be Flexible
Organizational adaptability promotes long-term success. By encouraging continuous learning and flexibility in their mental models, organizations can respond more effectively to new challenges and opportunities. Recognizing that mental models must evolve with new information ensures that decisions are based on current realities rather than outdated assumptions.

This adaptability not only enables quicker responses to change but also fosters a reputation for reliability and competence. Employees, stakeholders, and customers can trust that the organization is well-positioned to navigate uncertainties and deliver on its commitments.

Encourage Social Responsibility
Ethical and socially responsible practices give team members a reason to feel good about what they do. By defining and embedding values that prioritize integrity, fairness, and community engagement, organizations set clear expectations for conduct. This proactive approach ensures that decision-making aligns with these values, enhancing the trust and credibility of an organization in the eyes of employees, customers, and the broader community.

Whether it’s ethical sourcing, transparent reporting, sustainability, or community outreach, aligning actions with explicitly stated values adds to a team’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness that pays significant dividends in the long run.

moving beyond bias

Bias is real, but any adult not aware of it probably doesn’t qualify for a profession where such ignorance would cause harm anyway.

Even though our actions and decisions are all influenced by our biases, it is the robustness of our mental models and the raw materials from which they’re constructed that predict how reliable and trustworthy we and our teams will be. Within those models, there are many wonderful cognitive strategies and resources that allow us to transcend our biases and thereby avoid causing harm or damage.

Every now and then, of course, the weakness of a mental model will be exposed by the nature of a challenging situation for which the model is inadequate. The result can fall on a spectrum somewhere between mere embarrassment and complete catastrophe.

Thankfully, as Charles Duhigg explains in Smarter Faster Better, we humans get it right so impressively often that it’s foolish to micromanage or limit people to the point that they lose the effectiveness they’ve demonstrated over and over again.

Our successes and failures are the result of our mental models, both directly and indirectly. The focus of every society, community, team, and organization should be the continuous building, evaluation, and strengthening of those mental models that maximize the likelihood of individual and collective success.


John M. Collins is an Authoritative Leadership and Expertise Coach at Critical Victories in Southfield, Michigan. He specializes in supporting clients in authoritative, high-stakes occupations requiring high levels of expertise to earn and retain the trust of the public or other consequential stakeholders. John shares some of his unique philosophies and insights on high-stakes leadership in his 2022 book, THE NEW SUPERIOR – A BETTER WAY TO BE THE ONE IN CHARGE (www.thenewsuperior.com), available in hardcover and audio. 

John works with people, teams, and organizations across the United States and oversees. If you are serious about expanding your leadership effectiveness, click below to request a free client strategy call:

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