Mental habit loops


Mental habit loops and mental models can be blamed for every human decision. People do what they do because they have learned it to be the best way. An understanding of how mental habit loops and mental models work can help people hardwire their brains for success.

What they are

Mental habit loops are three-step processes that repeat themselves over and over again. An external stimulus triggers a mental response, and that mental response causes a person to take the same action every time. Mental models are the internal knowledge bases that impact thinking and decisions. People make decisions based on the knowledge they already have. For example, a plastic surgeon may be likely to recommend a friend get plastic surgery for their crooked nose whereas a psychologist may be more likely to recommend that the same person learns to love their nose. Both of these people are forming an opinion based on the mental models of information they already have. Their solution could be right or wrong in any given situation.

How they impact you

Mental habit loops impact every decision a person makes. As extremely habitual people who follow a similar routine day in and day out, these loops can help people solidify good routines. Mental models also help people to make informed decisions. What happens when these long solidified routines are not so good? Mental habit loops can keep a person doing the same thing and getting the same results, even when the final outcome is not a good one.

How to improve thinking

Mental habit loops have a far stronger effect on the way humans behave in familiar environments with strict routines, like school or the workplace, rather than in more carefree environments, like a party or one’s own home. To harness the power of mental habit loops, a person must understand their own loops. For a few days, keep written track of major decisions and try to understand the thought processes behind those decisions. Ask questions such as: What made me keep my hand down when I already knew the answer? Why did I sign up to be the leader of the team’s next project?

Mental habit loops and mental models can work to a person’s advantage or to a person’s detriment. Think of these mental patterns as tools. When in the hands of a person who is somewhat skilled and safety-conscious, a saw is a powerful tool for good. When in the hands of a person who has no idea what he is doing and does not take any safety precautions, a saw is an incredibly dangerous weapon that will likely cause personal harm. By taking the time to analyze his or her own mental models and habit loops, an individual can consciously harness the power of these mental tendencies to cause greater success in all areas of life.

Regardless of an individual’s personality, the human routine is to avoid risk. Whether subconsciously or intentionally, many people reason that if they do not take a risk, they will avoid the negative consequences of failure. By avoiding risk, a person also shields themselves from the positive consequences of potential success. For example, a man could reason, based on the mental habit loop of past rejections, that he should not ask his friend out on a date. He reasoned on the only mental models he has, so he sincerely believes that his choice was the best one. In reality, the woman would have said yes and they would have eventually got married if only he had asked. The presence of a  measure of risk often leads to success in areas of life spanning from romance to the corporate world. Every situation seems to be more of a risk for someone who does not have a mental model on which to base a deeper understanding of the new circumstances he or she may face from taking the said risk. Through education, habitual brains can form mental models that quiet the inner voice that always discourages new opportunities.

Just as any other habit can be changed, mental habit loops are not cemented onto the brain. These loops form because of the real or perceived consequences, negative or positive, of a particular situation or action. If there is a positive action that a mental habit loop causes a person to shy away from, that person can reframe the loop by turning the mentally perceived negative result of the action into something positive. Perhaps a student is afraid of answering in class. The student can think of a personal reward for raising his hand in class and follow through on that reward every time he raises his hand. Eventually, the end result of the mental habit loop associated with answering is class will be a positive reward. The student takes control of the habit loop by making the reward something that is not based on the teacher calling on him or the response of other students.

The same process can be applied to mental models. An employee may be afraid of applying for a management position in his department because he has not formed any mental models pertaining to management. He can harness the positive power of mental models by following management tip accounts on social media, renting a book about management from the library, or finding a current manager to mentor him. Now that he has a mental model of what a major should do and should be, he can have more confidence in his decision to apply for the manager position.

People with a greater understanding of their own thinking patterns can take control of those patterns for better end results.