Metacognition: Part 1
Episode #2 of the course Integrative thinking: A practical guide for leaders by Jennifer Riel
Today, we’re going to spend some time thinking about thinking.
This feels slightly indulgent in a world that says we should all be focused on action, all the time. The world is changing fast, we’re told, and we can’t just stand around thinking. We need to focus on getting stuff done!
It is true that we need to enable effective action as quickly as possible. But the best way to do that is to take the time we’ve got to think a little more deeply and critically, so we are taking action on the right things at the right time.
We’re interested in how people think, rather than what people do, because thinking drives action. Every action we take is framed by our understanding of the world.
In order to have a chance of generating great new choices to tough problems, we need to understand what we believe and why we believe it. Ultimately, this is about metacognition: the ability to think about our own thinking and to understand what goes on in our mind.
The mind is how we engage with and understand the world. But, as it turns out, it is less of a window into that world than a filter. And it serves as a filter for a good and helpful reason: Our world is massively complex. It is too complex for us to take in and make sense of in real time. So, our mind does us an important favor of which we are blissfully unaware: It filters a great deal of that complexity out and creates for us a simplified model of the world. Every time we encounter anything, whether a person, a place, or an idea, our mind builds a simplified model of that thing (and that is, after all, the very definition of a model: a representation of something, typically on a smaller scale).
Our mental models—the set of models our mind creates of the world—accumulate over time, and ultimately, they become our reality. The modeling process happens automatically, continuously, and mainly subconsciously. Unfortunately, those models are wrong. Or at least, incomplete. That is the nature of models—they leave things out.
A Short Exercise
Try this: Close your eyes and think about the room you are in, with as much detail as you can. Really paint a picture in your mind, as vividly as possible. Take a moment to do this, and then return here.
Now, look around the room and reflect on the image you drew in your mind. Ask yourself: What did I miss? What is part of this room, but not part of my model of it? In some cases, it will be small things—a mark on the wall, a crooked picture—but often, there will be huge differences between the model in your mind and the room you see when you look more closely.
This isn’t a bad thing. Our simplified mental models are how we get through the day; they enable focus and action. Without these models, we’d spend all day lost in the complexity of the world. But these models are also limiting. We think we see reality. We think we have access to the truth of our experience. And when we believe we have the right answer, we stop looking to see more. We stop seeking to learn. This can lead to poor decision-making, in many predictable ways.
In our next session, we’ll explore the ways in which our mental models are limited and the implications of these limitations for our ability to create great choices.
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