Shared Mental Models (Insight)

Why is it that when you go back home to visit family, suddenly you feel like you’re 8 years old again? Or when you’re with your buddies from summer camp, you act like a teenager? Why the crazy behaviour of otherwise staid, ‘normal’ people when they’re watching their favourite sports team play? Why do you behave differently at work than you do with your friends? Why do different companies in the same industry have completely different cultures?

Leading expert on consumer behaviour Gerald Zaltman, author of the brilliant How Customers Think, has a theory. It’s called “shared mental model”. He says that in any culture, be it your family or your company, there’s a consistent powerful framework of ideas that constitute a sort of “neurological wiring” for that culture. Not only are there certain themes and ideas that are acceptable and/or preferable, but also a certain sequence and structure to those ideas that create a set of guardrails for your thoughts and behaviours. And that mental model is so powerful that most of the time, we don’t even realize to what extent it’s regulating our personalities.

In the nomenclature of Wunderkind and Scientific Intelligence, this is basically a set of related “memes” or self-repeating and highly self-reinforcing ideas that form a kind of super structure of thoughts and attitudes. A “meme system”. And each of us belongs to a number of meme systems or shared mental models. And when we’re in contact with a particular culture that we belong to, we almost instantaneously “plug in” and become part of that system, whether we like it or not.

This has very interesting and profound implications on marketing — for example, on the idea of consumer profiles and segmentation. Rather than seeing a person as a single profile or segment, we can thus see each human being has having multiple facets or “interfaces” that plug into a fair number of meme systems/mental models. We are multi-faceted, and we have many segments within each of us. The key is to know which segment can or should be activated to encourage certain behaviours.

So the next time you go back home for Thanksgiving, and find yourself becoming an awkward, cranky tween again, know that you’re simply “plugging in” to an old mental model. Call up a friend from your present life — and notice how a whole other (and possibly more pleasing) mental model takes over.