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A book published earlier this year provides a nice toolkit for qualitative researchers and consultants looking for new ways to bring additional value to our work. Super Thinking, by authors Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann, introduces and explains a large number of mental models that can be applied as tools to help us do our research and communicate our findings and recommendations with more depth and impact.
A mental model is essentially a recurring concept that can be used to help understand, explain, and predict things. They are used as shortcuts to higher-level thinking. Most mental models have solid supporting evidence behind them but are not extremely well-known or formally taught to everyone in school.
Because most mental models are intuitive, they can be quickly explained to others, and used to recognize and describe patterns in behavior. They are highly valuable in qualitative research because we continually observe and hear things that need to be communicated to our clients – sometimes in ways that help to give a higher level of explanation than we have heard. It is much easier for us to recognize and explain something if we have a solid label for what is going on.
There are literally hundreds of mental models in the book. They come from a wide and varied number of fields of study, including philosophy, investing, statistics, physics and physical science, and economics. A list of several mental models is included in the accompanying table.
Applying Models in Research
In a recent marketing research project, I found a way to make use of one of Weisberg’s and McCann’s mental models to help communicate a key point to clients during a long day of in-person research. (Note: there will be a lot of detail blinding in this example to ensure confidentiality.) The research was in support of a safer kind of post-surgical wound care that had been on the market for a few years. Some of the doctors in research claimed that they hadn’t noticed fewer post-surgical complications since switching to the safer alternative, and some thought they may have seen even more complications. This was causing (and I am being understated here) some confusion and concern in the back room. Fortunately, the situation brought to mind the mental model of a moral hazard. Put simply, people take on more risk when they have information (in this case, the knowledge about the new wound-care therapy) that encourages them to believe that they are being protected.
Discussion with clients about moral hazard helped us to put a label on what we were hearing and helped us understand and probe differently in later interviews. Even more important, we were ultimately able to use the learnings to generate new messaging about the wound care product to address the potential problem of moral hazard for both physicians and patients.
A lot of the useful mental models in the book come from the social and behavioral sciences. The concept of availability bias describes the fact that once we make an answer (or behavior) available in someone’s mind by drawing attention to it, the answer begins to seem more correct. It is an automatic effect and is nearly impossible to resist. Of course, we usually want to avoid availability bias when we moderate (i.e., no leading questions).
I often discuss this idea of availability bias with clients when writing guides or surveys, and the reaction is overwhelmingly positive – even when it leads to re-writing someone else’s question. Availability bias comes up in other situations, for example when composing messages for promotion. In these cases, the bias can become a bit more acceptable (e.g., “Doctor, tell me about how satisfied your patients have been after you have prescribed our drug?”).
The larger point behind these examples is that introducing clients to mental models such as moral hazard and availability bias helps to communicate relatively complex points in a simple way that wouldn’t be possible without using the terms. When discussing a particular mental model such as loss aversion before research, clients and other listeners then begin to recognize it when they hear it from respondents. It is also fair to think of mental models as “value-adds” for any moderators or consultants who are able to bring in new concepts to help their client achieve their objectives. I’ve found that introducing mental models relatively early in reports can help prepare clients for critical upcoming findings and conclusions.
It is well worth while to check out Super Thinking and discover which mental models can be most valuable to your business.
Mark A. Wheeler, PhD, is a qualitative researcher and consultant who applies his background in cognitive and behavioral science to help his clients achieve their goals. He is Principal of Wheeler Research LLC in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.