What Are “Mental Models”?
Mental models are the largely unconscious ideas and beliefs that structure what we think about—and what we do not consider. Mental models represent mental shortcuts and limitations. “Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior” (p.8). Differences between mental models explain why two people can observe the same event and describe it differently: They are paying attention to different details. In any new experience, most people are drawn to take in and remember only the information that reinforces their existing mental models. Mental models thus limit people’s ability to change.
- Automatic, rapid, unconscious
- Direct thought, self-reinforcing
- Maximize efficiency
- Keep us “in the box”
- Problematic when we need to think “outside the box” - complex problems
Mental models shape our human service delivery organizations. Most people secretly believe they are “normal”. The mental model “job” of the mental health system and other components of the human service delivery system is to keep clear boundaries between “us” and “them” – the normal people and the “crazy” people.
Trauma theory + recovery ideas dissolve some of those “social defense mechanisms” and therefore increase anxiety. Being “trauma-informed” means changing basic mental models about violence, emotions, learning, communication, governance, social responsibility, and growth & change. The Sanctuary Model is about changing our mental models for how we understand human beings and human organizations. At the present time, creative innovation in the human service delivery field is being stifled by existing mental models that constrain new ideas and new ways of doing things.
Mental Models and Change
Since all of our social service systems are in the business of change, then we should have a clear idea of how individuals change, families change, and organizations change. One critical difference in the modern world is that the rate of change has greatly accelerated and as a result, people have a hard time keeping up with the systems we create! There has been a great deal of research looking at individual change, particularly psychotherapeutic change but we will only touch on that very wide issue. The subject of system change – and in this case system “transformation” is being avidly discussed but mostly in the business world because of the enormous changes wrought by globalization. First of all, since change is normal and routine in living systems of all kinds, what are the typical fears of change that keep systems stuck?
Animals, babies, and human beings in general have a fear of the unknown. Uncertainty means potential threats to survival are out there. We are a conservative species in that our criteria for movement is based at least as much on staying put – since we are alive “here” wherever here happens to be – as it is on moving on. In other words, “things could always get worse”. The more fear-provoking, life-threatening situations a person has encountered, the more threatening uncertainty is. Some people avoid circumstances that evoke fear while others try to control their sense of fear, but regardless of what defensive strategy we employ, it pretty much comes from the same place – life is scary and fear rules.
Anything that threatens our ability to control ourselves and the people we depend upon threatens this basic primal need to guarantee certainty. So we fear change because change could mean some alteration in the patterns of power and control that we have so far achieved. We adopt specific roles in our relationships with people upon whom we depend and anything that threatens a change in those stable roles makes us fear change. In fact, anything that threatens those relationships, like conflicts of any sort, may make us terrified of changing anything. Change can mean new responsibilities and therefore a change in what we are and are not accountable for and to whom we are accountable and this may provoke a fear of change. Any significant change is associated with emotions and we may fear the distress associated with a change and this includes confronting unresolved feelings from the past as well as confronting whatever losses occur concurrently with the change that is happening.
And these are just the fairly routine fears that can be expected when there is change in any of our routines. We always fear the loss associated with change and never know until it happens how we will handle ourselves. But there are other significant, meaning level changes that give people reason to fear trauma-informed change particularly.
Trauma Theory Challenges Mental Models:
Assumptions About Children
- Society claims to value children despite underfunding of education, child welfare, child mental health, early childhood education systems
- Aside from Somalia, U. S. is only country in the world unwilling to ratify the U. N. Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Trauma theory emphasizes vital importance of attachment and safety on child development and connects child development across the lifespan.
- What if services were always delivered “in the best interests of the child”?
- People who have obvious disturbances in behavior are either “sick” or “bad” or both
- The problem resides within the individual, causation is largely unknown and is probably related to the person’s genes
- Psychological, social and spiritual issues are interesting, but not necessarily relevant to treatment
Assumptions About Mind-Body Connection
- For hundreds of years, medical science has pretended that the mind and the body are separate entities
- The psychobiology of trauma demonstrates the many ways in which the mind, the body, the spirit, and the social context are interrelated and influence each other
Assumptions About Free Will
- How can we say our will is free when so much of our future trajectory is partially or wholly determined in childhood
- How can we say we have free will when we reckon with the compulsive power of repetition?
- What exactly is the point of “punishing” people who have been punished since they were born
Assumptions About Power
- Powerful = Strength, courage, control, order, manliness, rescuer
- Powerlessness = Weakness, cowardly, emotional, chaotic, girly, victim
- Denial of helplessness
- Denial of death
- Denial of tragedy
Assumptions About Uses of Power
- Authoritarianism = strength, courage, control, order, manliness, leadership
- Democracy = weakness, cowardly, chaos, confusion, flip-flopper, sissy, failure of leadership
Assumptions About Trauma Theory
- Abusive use of power threatens species survival
- Adoption of nonviolent methods is essential
- Democratic processes are best methods for creating nonviolent environments and solving complex problems
- Trauma Theory =Tragic Nature of Human Existence
The Sanctuary Model Challenges Mental Models
Not everyone in our culture holds the same mental models but they are affecting everyone in the culture because mental models prohibit us from actually thinking “outside of the boxes” we are in. We have listed some of these cultural assumptions below.
- Organizations and entire sectors are viewed as machines
- Change efforts are usually based on “social engineering”
- Social engineering is top-down: people at the top give orders and everyone else does as they are told
- Organizations cannot change, nor can people
- Violence only applies to physical assaults
- A certain level of violence is acceptable and unavoidable
- Might makes right
- Eliminate the violent individuals and you eliminate the problems with violence
- Emotions are problematic and interfere with getting things done
- Being unemotional = being objective, scientific, rational, strong = good
- Being emotional = weak, vulnerable, irrational = bad
- Emotions get in the way of good decisions which should not be influenced by emotion
- All you need to get good decisions are smart people who tell other people what to do
- Groups are nothing more than collections of individuals and what comes out of a group will be solely determined by individual contributions
- Conflicts get in the way of getting word done and should be avoided
- Meetings are a necessary evil – usually boring, a waste of time, and the outcomes are usually predetermined by the people in charge.
- Your job at work is to do things, not learn things
- Smarter individuals always make better decisions than groups of people
- Most things should be strictly on a “need to know” basis
- Confidentiality is extremely important – except when it isn’t
- Speaking the truth just gets you into trouble
- It’s impossible to “speak truth to power” without being punished
- If you don’t want to get into trouble, just keep your mouth shut and do what you are told
- Leaders have to tell people what to do and followers have to do it
- If people aren’t doing what they are told – tell them again, talk louder, punish them
- Democracy means voting
- Democracy is the best form of government but it’s only for countries
- Most people aren’t worth listening to – although I am
- All I have to do is follow the rules
- If something isn’t working, add another rule
- I am only responsible for myself and my immediate family/friends/colleagues
- Everyone here has equal opportunities – if they don’t prosper it’s their own fault and not my problem.
- Punishment works and if people do something wrong or don’t do something they should do, the best thing to do is to punish them
- We all have “free will” and if somebody screws up it’s because they chose to do so
- Right and wrong are very clear and obvious
- Everybody knows what just and unjust means
- These kids (staff) (administrators) cannot (will not, do not want to) change – and never will
- Love it or leave it
- If you lose - Just get over it
- Resist change – if it’s working, keep doing it; if it isn’t working pretend it is.
- Change efforts never work anyhow, so why bother
- We don’t have time to sit around imagining what could be – we have to deal with what is
- Senge, P., The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization. 1990, Currency/Doubleday.