Mental models, and the Other as dark reflection.

By Gordon Rugg

This article is the first in a series about mental models and their implications both for worldviews and for everyday behaviour. Mental models are at the core of how we think and act. They’ve received a lot of attention from various disciplines, which is good in terms of there being plenty of material to draw on, and less good in terms of clear, unified frameworks.

In these articles, I’ll look at how we can use some clean, elegant formalisms to make more sense of what mental models are, and how they can go wrong. Much of the classic work on mental models has focused on mental models of specific small scale problems. I’ll focus mainly on the other end of the scale, where mental models have implications so far-reaching that they’re major components of worldviews.

Mental models are a classic case of the simplicity beyond complexity. Often, something in a mental model that initially looks trivial turns out to be massively important and complex; there’s a new simplicity at the other side, but only after you’ve waded through that intervening complexity. For this reason, I’ll keep the individual articles short, and then look in more detail at the implications in separate articles, rather than trying to do too much in one article.

I’ll start with the Other, to show how mental models can have implications at the level of war versus peace, as well as at the level of interpersonal bigotry and harrassment.

The Other is a core concept in sociology and related fields. It’s pretty much what it sounds like. People tend to divide the world in to Us and Them. The Other is Them. The implications are far reaching.

The full story is, as you might expect, more complex, but the core concept is that simple. In this article, I’ll look at the surface simplicity, and look at the different implications of two different forms of surface simplicity.

It’s a topic that takes us into questions about status, morality, and what happens when beliefs collide with reality.

A simple model: Using fixed opposites

A simple model of Us versus the Other uses a set of core values associated with Us, and a matching set of opposite values for the Other. Some of those values for Us are generic good things, such as being brave; others involve specific characteristics that are used to define the group, such as believing in democracy. The values are typically treated as crisp sets, with no fuzzy intermediate values between them; they’re either good or bad.

The table below shows some examples of how this works.

So far, so simple.

What happens, though, when the Other behaves in a way that doesn’t match that stereotype, or when reality behaves in a way that doesn’t match that stereotype?

This has a habit of happening in wartime, when a war begins with one group assuming that the Other is weak and cowardly (and therefore needs to be subjugated for the greater good). In World War II, the German troops invading Russia received an unwelcome shock when they encountered stiff resistance from Russian troops armed with T34 tanks that were more than a match for the German tanks. Similarly, Allied forces encountering Japanese forces equipped with the advanced Zero fighters discovered the flaws in their stereotypes about Asians doing inferior copies of Western innovations.

One option at this point would be to wonder whether the stereotype might be wrong, but people with strong stereotypes aren’t usually keen on that option, because it opens the door to uncomfortable questions such as “Are we the baddies?”

Another option, in the case of an individual Other, is to treat that individual as an honorary one of Us, who isn’t like the rest of Them. This strategy is quite often used as a way of reducing cognitive dissonance, when a prejudiced individual has to work with a member of the Other, and discovers that they are actually different from the stereotype of the Other. This can be rationalised for individual cases with dodgy folk wisdom such as “the exception that proves the rule”. By definition, though, this approach can only be used for a few cases before it starts to challenge the rule.

A third option is to deny reality, for example by claiming that uncomfortable evidence has been faked. This can easily lead into a spiral down into conspiracy theory, as the implications ripple out to a wider network of unwelcome facts which must in turn be denied.

None of these options is brilliant.

A subtler solution is to sidestep the underlying problem by using a set of opposites based on what are humorously known as irregular adjectives to cover a broader range of possibilities.

A more sophisticated model: Using irregular adjectives

An example of irregular adjectives is: “I am resolute, you are stubborn, he/she/it is pig-headed”.

So, for example, if one of Us does something dangerous, they are doing it because they are brave; if one of Them does the identical thing, they are doing it because they are fanatical. Conversely, We are prudent, whereas They are cowardly, as in the table below. When we depart from being democratic, we are being pragmatic; when they depart from being tyrannical, they are being unprincipled.

This approach has the advantage of handling all eventualities. However, it can easily be accused of moral relativism and of hypocritical cynicism. A classic example is the character of Sir Humphrey, the archetypal cynical civil servant, in the comedy series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister. His discussion of morality in politics is well worth watching for serious insights into complex ethical and practical questions, as well as for entertainment.

So why do people follow the simple Us/Them model?

An easy and obvious answer is that a lot of people follow the simple Good Us/Bad Other model because they are too lazy and/or stupid to handle anything more complex.

That answer, though, doesn’t stand up well to close examination. If you look at populist politics through history, simplistic Us/Them politics attracts a lot of vigorous, energetic supporters. It also attracts significant numbers of people who are in other respects intelligent and sophisticated. Laziness and stupidity don’t explain all of what’s going on.

A more interesting answer is that the Good Us/Bad Them model is attractive to some people because it’s a crisp set worldview, like the one in the image below, where something is either white or black, with no intermediates or alternatives.

A crisp set worldview offers the appearance of certainty in an uncertain world. This is particularly attractive to people who find that world threatening; for example, threatening because they’re worried about losing their status or privilege. In the world, binary categorisation is very often combined with fear or threat or the prospect of loss. It’s also very often associated with heavy moral loading for the binary values. The dividing line between Us and Them in this worldview is also the dividing line between good and evil, between high status and low status, and between happiness and misery.

The irregular adjective model is more likely to appeal to people who view the world as being inherently greyscale, with few or no absolute cases of completely right or completely wrong, as in the diagram below.


When a dividing line between categories is as important to someone as in the binary worldview above, then any breakdown in that division is deeply threatening. For this reason, extreme binary worldviews tend to be very hostile to borderline cases. This hostility can appear completely disproportionate to the apparent threat from the borderline cases themselves, which may involve just a handful of people or situations. What’s probably going on is that the hostility is driven by the perceived threat of the dividing line being broken, and letting in a host of other, more threatening, cases.

This may be why nuanced models such as the crisp/fuzzy/crisp one below are not more popular within worldviews. They explicitly assume a significant proportion of greyscale cases (which would be threatening to True Believers) but also explicitly assume a significant proportion of crisp set members (which would not fit well with a relativistic worldview where everything is on a greyscale). I’ve blogged about crisp and fuzzy sets here and here, and about their use in ideology here.

In systematised worldviews such as organised religions and formal political parties, the dividing line between crisp categories is typically policed by specialist theologians or political operatives who decide how each borderline case should be categorised. This leads to outcomes such as dietary laws or lists of clean and unclean things. From the viewpoint of the ordinary believer, this has the advantage of offloading the heavy decision making onto someone else; the believer can safely hide in the herd if they follow the official categorisation. The diagram below shows the red line between Good and Evil in such worldviews.

Whoever controls the red line has a lot of power. This becomes very apparent in populist politics and populist religion, when demagogues can stake out their claim to leadership of a group of Us by drawing a red line between the Us and the Other. This often involves Othering a group that was previously viewed as part of Us.

In contrast, the irregular adjectives model doesn’t offer strong claims to moral superiority of Us over Them, and doesn’t offer a strong appearance of certainty. It does provide explanations for unwelcome surprises from reality, but this advantage isn’t enough for true believers in the binary Good Us/Bad Them model.


A lot of people subscribe to simple crisp set worldviews involving a good Us versus the Other, where the Other is a dark mirror-opposite of our virtues. The popularity of these worldviews isn’t simply attributable to the believers being lazy or stupid. Something deeper is going on.

In the next article in this series, I’ll look at the issue of apparent inconsistency in simplistic worldviews, via the concept of span of consistency.

Notes and links

You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

You might also find our website useful:

Overviews of the articles on this blog:



1 thought on “Mental models, and the Other as dark reflection.

  1. Pingback: Mental models, worldviews, and mocha | hyde and rugg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.