Posts Tagged ‘population dynamics’

What are “Mental Models”? Part 2

November 3rd, 2010 7 comments

Editor’s note:  This post is part two of a two part series on mental models.  You can read the first post by clicking here.

In part one of this series I stated “A mental model is a model that is constructed and simulated within a conscious mind.”  A key part of this definition is that mental models are not static; they can be played forward or backward in your mind like a video player playing a movie.  But even better than a video player, a mental model can be simulated to various outcomes, many times over, by changing the assumptions.

Mental Simulation

Child reaching toward hot stoveRemember the example from part one of the child reaching for the hot stove?  One possible outcome we can simulate is that the child does not get burned.  We can simulate this outcome by altering our assumptions. We could include a parent in the room who rescues the child in the nick of time.  Or, we could simulate the child slipping just before reaching the stovetop because the hardwood floor appears slippery.  This kind of mental simulation allows us to evaluate what may happen, given different conditions, and inform our decision making.  We don’t have to make any decisions while looking at the picture, but imagine what actions you might take if the scene above was actually unfolding in front of you.

It seems effortless to mentally simulate these types of mental models.  Most of the time we are not even aware that we are doing it.  But other times, it becomes very obvious that our brain is working rather hard.  For example, looking at the chess board below, can you determine if the configuration is a checkmate?

Chess board

It is indeed.  But I’ll bet it took noticeably more effort for you to mentally simulate the chess game than it did with the child near the stove scenarios.  Think about the mental effort that the players make trying to simulate the positions on the board just a few moves ahead in the game.

The paper “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” by G.A. Miller (1956) established that people can generally hold seven objects (numbers, letters, words, etc.) simultaneously within their working memory.  Think of “working memory” as you would think of memory in a computer.  It’s like the amount of RAM we have available to perform computations within our mind.  And it’s not very much.  This means if people want to do any really complex information processing, they’ll need some help.  Over the last 50 years or so, the help has come from computers.  (In fact, IBM designed a computer specifically for playing chess, dubbed ‘Deep Blue’).

Digital computers have catapulted humankind’s ability to design, test, and build new technology to unbelievable levels in a relatively short period of time.  Space exploration, global telecommunication, and modern health care technology would not have been possible without the aid of computers.  We are able to perform the computation required to simulate complex systems using a computer instead of our minds.  Running simulations with a computer is faster and more reliable.

What makes a model useful?

Models that we can simulate using computers come in many forms.  For example, a model could be a financial model in a spreadsheet, an engineering design rendered with a CAD program, or a population dynamics model created with STELLA.  But what makes any of these models useful?  Is it the model’s results?  Its predictions?  I think the ability to explain the results is what makes a model truly useful.

Models are tools that can contribute to our understanding and decision making processes.  To make decisions, a person needs to have some understanding of the system the model represents.  A business finance model, for example, can be a useful tool if you understand how the business works.

Consider a model that does not provide any explanatory content, only results.  This type of model is often referred to as a black box.  It gives you all the answers, but you have no idea how it works.  People rarely trust these types of models and they are often not very useful for generating understanding.

Mental model of the learning processThe most useful models are structured so that the model itself will provide an explanatory framework that enables someone to ask useful questions of it.  Those questions may be answered by experimenting with the model (simulating) which, in turn, can help deepen a person’s understanding of the system.

This is an important feedback loop in a person’s learning process.  This feedback loop can be accelerated if the model provides explanations and can be simulated with a computer.

Transforming your mental models into visual models that are easier to understand and experiment with, will deepen your understanding, and help you communicate your models more effectively.

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Limits to Growth

December 3rd, 2009 5 comments

This is the first of a three-part series on the Limits to Growth Archetype.  The second part can be accessed here and the third part here.

The Limits to Growth Systems Archetype, also known as Limits to Success, combines growth with an exogenous or endogenous limit.  This Systems Archetype was formally identified in Appendix 2 of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge (1990), but made its first prominent appearance in World Dynamics by Jay Forrester (1971) and then The Limits to Growth by Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens (1972).  The Causal Loop Diagram (CLD) is shown below.


Real growth processes have inherent limits to growth.  Identifying these limits can help avoid problems in the future, whether the problem is overpopulation, increasing demand for a product that cannot be met, or growing a business in a mature market.  When growth is desired, but limited, it is always better to find ways to increase the limit before pushing for more growth.  Excessive growth in the face of a limit often leads to collapse.  Driving the system to the point of collapse can erode the ability to continue after the collapse, for example, by reducing the production capability of a piece of farmland or destroying the reputation of a company.

Classic examples of limits to growth include:

  • The collapse of the deer population on the Kaibab plateau and on St. Matthew Island due to overpopulation and the attendant overgrazing of their habitat
  • The overshoot and collapse of the human population on Easter Island
  • Overgrazing in the Sahel region of Africa by cattle herders
  • Overfishing of the oceans by fishermen
  • The collapse of People Express due to sharp customer growth combined with slow personnel growth
  • The sharp exodus of America Online subscribers after an intense marketing campaign increased the number of subscribers far beyond their capacity
  • The contraction of the world economy in 2008 due to limiting oil supplies
  • The productivity of staff deteriorating as a company grows, due to increased interactions and reporting overhead
  • Business growth limited by the size of the potential market
  • Yeast cells in the fermentation process, who suffer from both the loss of exogenously supplied sugar and the increase of endogenously produced pollution

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