Mental models, and making sense of crazy uncles

By Gordon Rugg

The crazy uncle is a well-established and much-dreaded part of Western culture. There’s probably a very similar figure in other cultures too, but in this article, I’ll focus on the Western one, and on what is going on in his head.

Why are crazy uncles permanently angry, and keen to inflict their opinions, prejudices and conspiracy theories on other people? Some parts of the answer are already well covered in popular media and in specialist research, but other parts are less well known.

In this article, I’ll give a brief overview of the better known elements, and then combine them with insights from knowledge modeling, and see what sort of answer emerges.

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Mental models and metalanguage: Putting it all together

By Gordon Rugg

The previous articles in this series looked at mental models and ways of making sense of problems. A recurrent theme in those articles was that using the wrong model can lead to disastrous outcomes.

This raises the question of how to choose the right model to make sense of a problem. In this article, I’ll look at the issues involved in answering this question, and then look at some practical solutions.

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Mental models, worldviews, and mocha

By Gordon Rugg

Mental models provide a template for handling things that happen in the world.

At their best, they provide invaluable counter-intuitive insights that let us solve problems which would otherwise be intractable. At their worst, they provide the appearance of solutions, while actually digging us deeper into the real underlying problem.

In this article, I’ll use a cup of mocha as an example of how these two outcomes can happen. I’ll also look at how this relates to the long-running debate about whether there is a real divide between the arts and the sciences as two different cultures.

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Mental models, worldviews, and the span of consistency

By Gordon Rugg

In politics and religion, a common accusation is that someone is being hypocritical or inconsistent. The previous article in this series looked at how this can arise from the irregular adjective approach to other groups; for example, “Our soldiers are brave” versus “Their soldiers are fanatical” when describing otherwise identical actions.

Often, though, inconsistency is an almost inevitable consequence of dealing with complexity. Mainstream political movements, like organised religions, spend a lot of time and effort in identifying and resolving inherent contradictions within their worldview. This process takes a lot of time and effort because of the sheer number of possible combinations of beliefs within any mature worldview.

In this article, I’ll work through the implications of this simple but extremely significant issue.

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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.

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Crisp and fuzzy categorisation

By Gordon Rugg

Categorisation occurs pretty much everywhere in human life. Most of the time, most of the categorisation appears so obvious that we don’t pay particular attention to it. Every once in a while, though, a case crops up which suddenly calls our assumptions about categorisation into question, and raises uncomfortable questions about whether there’s something fundamentally wrong in how we think about the world.

In this article, I’ll look at one important aspect of categorisation, namely the difference between crisp sets and fuzzy sets. It looks, and is, simple, but it has powerful and far-reaching implications for making sense of the world.

I’ll start with the example of whether or not you own a motorbike. At first glance, this looks like a straightforward question which divides people neatly into two groups, namely those who own motorbikes, and those who don’t. We can represent this visually as two boxes, with a crisp dividing line between them, like this.

However, when you’re dealing with real life, you encounter a surprising number of cases where the answer is unclear. Suppose, for instance, that someone has jointly bought a motorbike with their friend. Does that person count as being the owner of a motorbike, when they’re actually the joint owner? Or what about someone who has bought a motorbike on hire purchase, and has not yet finished the payments?

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Grand Unified Theories

By Gordon Rugg

If you’re a researcher, there’s a strong temptation to find a Grand Unified Theory for whatever you’re studying, whether you’re a geologist or a physicist or psychologist or from some other field.

That temptation is understandable. There’s the intellectual satisfaction of making sense of something that had previously been formless chaos; there’s the moral satisfaction of giving new insights into long-established problems; for the less lofty-minded, there’s the prospect of having a law or theory named after oneself.

Just because it’s understandable, however, doesn’t mean that it’s always a good idea. For every Grand Unified Theory that tidies up some part of the natural world, there’s at least one screwed-up bad idea that will waste other people’s time, and quite possibly increase chaos and unpleasantness.

This article explores some of the issues involved. As worked examples, I’ll start with an ancient stone map of Rome, and move on later to a Galloway dyke, illustrated below.

bannerv2Sources for original images are given at the end of this article

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Doomsday predictions as expressive behaviour

By Gordon Rugg

There was a classic article on Pharyngula recently about a group who donned bright yellow t-shirts to announce the imminent end of the world. It’s far from the first time that this announcement has been made; it’s probably not going to be the last.

So why do people keep making this announcement? Do they really believe that this time is going to be different, or is there something deeper going on?

As you might have guessed, usually there’s something deeper going on. The same underlying principle crops up in a wide range of forms, and is particularly prominent in politics, where it can cause a lot of problems.

The explanation begins with a topic that we discussed recently on this blog, namely expressive behaviour. It then moves on to systems theory, luxury, sex and power. The end of the world is a fine, rich topic…

end of world

Originally posted on:

(Image used under fair use terms, as part of an academic article about background theory.)

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Strange places

By Gordon Rugg

There’s a scene in the movie Byzantium where a vampire hesitates at a threshold, waiting for her intended victim to invite her inside. The setting is a run-down seaside town, out of season. It’s a scene that combines several types of unsettling strangeness, which makes it a good starting point for today’s article about strange places.

bannerv1Two boundary spaces: Image credits are at the end of this article.

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Heroism, hagiography, and management theory

By Gordon Rugg

Popular management texts can be wonderful if you’re having a bad day. You simply dip into an accessibly-written text, and soon you encounter uplifting, edifying stories about real people who went through experiences much more traumatic than your bad day, and who then went on to accomplish amazing things. Stories like those can lift the spirits wonderfully, and fill you with new resolve and hope, at least until the next email or phone call comes along to plunge you back into the here and now.

Or, if you’re of a cynical nature, stories like those can leave you wondering whether you might be able to sell some gold bricks to anyone who believes the aforesaid tales.

So where does the truth lie? That’s the topic of this article, which takes us from management theory into the lives of saints, and into good old schema theory and cherry picking.


Images from Wikipedia; details at the end of this article

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