Relying on a system of mental models can confuse associations with reality says Laurence Gonzales.
give you an example of a really bad mistake that I made using mental models. When I was a little kid, my grandmother had an ashtray that looks like a rattlesnake. It was a beautiful thing, made out of stone, and it was very realistic. And I had this model in my head of a rattlesnake that was, you know, benign, it was a harmless thing and it had these nice emotional associations with my childhood and my grandmother. And frankly, I never thought about it again. I don’t know where it went. But one day as an adult, I was hiking in the Santa Monica Mountains and I came across the ruin of a stone house and I thought, “Oh cool. I’ll look for a souvenir here. I’ll find some old tool or something to bring home with me from this ruined house in the stone rubble.” And I started searching around and then all of a sudden, lo and behold, there was my grandmother’s ashtray. I’m like, “What a miracle! My grandmother’s ashtray, how did that happen?” And I reached out to pick it up and then I saw its tongue come out. And, of course, I realized the very stupid mistake that I made because I had all these intellectual knowledge that could have prevented me from doing that. But they didn’t because I was operating on a mental model, the closeness association I had and it was stored away. I haven’t thought about it for decades, and it was my grandmother’s ashtray. So I knew, intellectually, for example, that the chances of finding my grandmother’s ashtray anywhere in the known universe were approximately zero. I knew also that I was in the mountain wilderness where rattlesnakes are really common in California. I knew that they like to poke around in stone ruins ‘cause mice live there. I knew all these stuff and it did me no good. So this is what I mean when I say smart people do stupid things. This is the type of mistake that certain scientists call an intelligent mistake because all my learning, my most important learning caused the mistake