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Mental shortcuts are good, right?

Question: What has four legs, a tail, fur, and could be kept as a pet?

Answer: A dog. Or a cat. Or a hamster. Or a ferret. Or a bengal tiger. And on and on and on.

As you were thinking through the opening question, you likely “knew” the answer or at least were prompted in such a way that a specific animal was evoked. If you’re a cat person, you saw “four legs, a tail” and knew. If you’re a dog person, you might have got to the end and saw “pet” and knew.

To be sure, you would slow down and realize that the majority of mammals could fit the description. And yet, with four pieces of data you likely quickly settled in with an initial inclination.

That is a psychological schema at work..

A Swiss developmental psychologist named Jean Piaget gifted the discipline his theory of how mental models are developed. In lay terms, a schema can be thought of as a file that resides within the essentially infinite file cabinet of our long-term memory. (With 86 billion neurons capable of perhaps 100 trillion neural network connections, you’re not going to “fill up” your brain’s storage space).

When we sense incoming stimuli (visual, auditory, cognitive, etc), our minds will implicitly compare the arriving data to the most relevant file, or schema. For example, when you sit down in the passenger seat of a different vehicle for the first time, do you say, “There’s probably a restraint device around here somewhere” as you scan to your left, over your head, between your knees? Or… without looking do you reach up to your right, fully expecting to grab a buckle? When you do that, you’re accessing a schema file labeled “seat belt”.

What a time and energy saver! No need to think hard. There’s the seatbelt. Schemas provide great mental shortcuts.

Now, imagine that you’re not sitting in a different vehicle for the first time but you’re sitting in the leader’s seat confronting a unique problem for the first time. With no effort on your part, your mind is rapidly pulling out every drawer in the cabinet in a desperate attempt to find a file with this problem’s name on it. As soon as it finds one that’s even close, it’s DONE. Subconsciously, you’ve pulled a mental model from your past into a problem of the present that will shape your decision for the future. Like was said earlier, schemas provide great mental shortcuts… but sometimes to the wrong destination.

You cannot control nor need you apologize for a lifetime of experiences upon which you can draw to make decisions that are not only logically reasoned, but informed by the precious utility of experiential wisdom. The challenge is being vigilant in discerning which schemas are relevant and which ones are not.

When one, two, or twenty pieces of data arrive, some retrieved schemas can help categorize and organize a jumbled mess of incomplete or conflicting data. But some schemas that we automatically retrieve can filter out relevant data (because they don’t fit the schema) or funnel our solution-oriented thinking towards “what worked last time.” And as a general rule, the more pressure we’re under, the shorter the timeline, the more mentally fatigued we are, the more likely we are to use the wrong schema as a shortcut. Leader beware.

Your experiences are hard won. Definitely use them. Just don’t become hostage to them.


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