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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Surface structure and deep structure

By Gordon Rugg

The concepts of surface structure and deep structure are taken for granted in some disciplines, such as linguistics and media studies, but little known in others. This article is a brief overview of these concepts, with examples from literature, film, physics and human error.

The core concept

A simple initial example is that the surface structure of Fred kisses Ginger is an instantiation of the deep structure the hero kisses the heroine. That same deep structure can appear as many surface structures, such as Rhett kisses Scarlett or Mr Darcy kisses Elizabeth Bennet.

There are various ways of representing surface and deep structure. One useful representation is putting brackets around each chunk of surface structure, to clarify which bits of surface structure map onto which bits of deep structure; for example, [Mr Darcy] [kisses] [Elizabeth Bennet].

Another useful representation shows the surface structure mapped onto the deep structure visually. One way of doing this is as a table, like the one below.

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The simplicity beyond complexity

By Gordon Rugg

The simplicity beyond complexity is a concept attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. It appears in at least a couple of forms, as described below.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.” This quote, which on the Holmes Sr page has “my right arm” instead of “my life,” is one for which I haven’t found the source so far, and so I will leave this quote as it is on both pages. – InvisibleSun 18:05, 10 October 2006 (UTC)

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:Oliver_Wendell_Holmes_Jr.

It’s interpreted in at least a couple of ways.

One way, which I won’t go into here, is about working out how to solve a problem, and then hiding the complexity of the solution from the user, so that the product is simple to use.

The other way, which I will go into below, is about why apparently sensible simple explanations often don’t work, and about why there’s often a different but better simple explanation that only emerges after a lot of complexity, confusion and investigation.

Adapted from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Graphic_labyrinths#/media/File:Triple-Spiral-labyrinth.svg

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Explosive leaf level fan out

By Gordon Rugg

Often in life a beautiful idea is brought low by an awkward reality. Explosive leaf level fan out is one of those awkward realities (though it does have a really impressive sounding name, which may be some consolation).

So, what is it, and why is it a problem? Can it be a solution, as well as a problem? These, and other questions, are answered below.

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Ways of stating the obvious

By Gordon Rugg

Stating the obvious is an activity unlikely to win you many friends, or to influence many people in a direction that you would like. However, sometimes you have to do it.

So, why do you sometimes have to state the obvious, and how can you turn this problem to advantage? That’s the topic of this post. I’ll use the worked example of risks, both obvious and less obvious. (Reassuring note: I don’t go into scary details…)

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Sending the right signals at interview

By Gordon Rugg

On the surface, a lot of the advice that you’ll see about sending the right signals at job interviews is either pretty obvious (e.g. “dress smartly”) or subjective (e.g. “dress smartly”) or social convention with no relation to what you’ll actually be doing in the job (e.g. “dress smartly”).

Below the surface, however, there are regularities that make a lot more sense of what’s going on. Once you know what those regularities are, you’re in a better position to send out the signals that you want, with the minimum of wasted effort and of misunderstanding on both sides.

So, what are those regularities, and where do they come from? The answer takes us into the reasons for Irish elk having huge antlers, and peacocks having huge tails, and monarchs having huge crowns.

Images from Wikipedia; credits at the end of this article

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Life at Uni: Some tips on exam technique

By Gordon Rugg

Standard disclaimer: This article is as usual written in my personal capacity, not in my Keele University capacity.

Sometimes, the acronyms that fit best are not the ones that produce the most encouraging words. That’s what happened when I tried to create an acronym to help with exam technique. It ended up as “FEAR FEAR”. This was not the most encouraging start. So, I’ll move swiftly on from the acronym itself to what it stands for, which is more encouraging, and should be more helpful.

A lot of people find exams mentally overwhelming. This often leads to answers that aren’t as good as they could be. When you’re in that situation, it’s useful to have a short, simple mental checklist that helps you focus on the key points that you want to get across. That’s where the acronym comes in.

F is for Facts, and F is for Frameworks

E is for Examples, and E is for Excellence

A is for Advanced, and A is for Application

R is for Reading, and R is for Relevance

In the rest of this article, I’ll work through each of the items, unpacking what they’re about, and how to handle them efficiently.

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