Importance of mental models - frameworks in public policy

Cognitive scientists talk of two types of thinking; framework approach and trial and error approach.  Accuracy and Time differentiate the two approaches. In trial and error approach, the error rate is high but it’s suitable for situations, which demand immediate action. In framework approach to thinking, you take a step back, think about everything critically and take steps with the final goal in mind. Accuracy is high because what you do now is adding incrementally to the journey towards the goal. The down side is that it’s cognitively demanding and time taking. We employ both these approaches depending on the suitability.

The balance between these two approaches gets challenging for complex systems. As the systems grow in size, the importance of having a framework increases.

Assume that you are solving a jigsaw puzzle with 9 pieces. You can fit together different pieces using trial and error approach and within reasonable time, you can fit all pieces together and complete the puzzle. Now, increase the size of jigsaw puzzle to million pieces.  Trial and error in such puzzle can be both useful and misleading. It’s useful because it gives some place to start, relieving the pressure to act. It’s misleading because you might be putting together two pieces that seem to fit in perfectly but actually don’t belong to their places as per the broad picture.

In such cases, having an idea of the final picture, the framework, matters a lot.  Once you have the final picture in mind, you are careful about pieces that you join, though you employ trial and error approach in the process.  Having a right framework is also important because it decides the decision making while putting together seemingly suitable pieces.  A misleading framework can mess up everything.

Policy making is similar to solving a million piece jigsaw puzzle. The act of putting together pieces is similar to taking decisions on various policies. Under the constant pressure to act, we might be taking several decisions and rolling out new policies, akin to the trial and error approach of solving a jigsaw puzzle. If we don’t have a framework in mind, as per which the decisions are being taken, these individual decisions might not be adding incremental value. We might have activity but not motion. At the same time, if we have a wrong framework in mind, it can take us in a completely wrong direction.

Under the compulsion to act, often people seek ‘actionable solutions’ with disregard to the advice on broad framework in which we think about the world. Such actionable solutions do a little if we don’t have a framework in place or if we have an incorrect framework. Putting such framework in place requires systematic thinking and rigorous approach using all the data at hand.

The bottom line is that sometimes policy makers should take a step back and reflect on their mental models of how things work. Their approach to problems and solutions to such problems are often rooted in their mental models. An incorrect mental model may break all efforts. One needs to constantly update their mental models rooted in evidence and theory and obsess less about actionable solutions!

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