Framers: Why mental models are humans’ superpower

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Frames or mental models enable us to make sense of new situations. They guide the decisions we make and the results we attain. And only humans, not machines, can frame. Framing is a cognitive muscle that can be trained and improved.

On January 24, 2020, Uğur Şahin, CEO of BioNTech, stumble across a scientific article describing the health condition of a family with unexplained pneumonia from Wuhan, China. Among the various medical data reported in the article, one detail caught his attention: two children of the family had been tested positive for the new COVID-19 virus but had not developed any symptoms. Asymptomatic cases seemed possible.

Based on this very limited piece of information, Uğur started to play out in his mind the possible evolution of this mysterious outbreak. The total number of cases was then only in the hundreds and mostly located in Wuhan. And yet, he quickly envisioned a global epidemic decimating the world population. The day after, with his wife and cofounder of BioNTech, Özlem Türeci, he reallocated all BioNTech’s resources to the search for a COVID vaccine. In the blink of an eye, the couple risked it all – and would end up saving millions of lives.

How could BioNTech’s founders be so quickly convinced of what they envisioned? How could they extrapolate so much from so little data and still be accurate? The answer is a fundamental and powerful cognitive skill we all possess: framing.

Frames are like maps

In recent decades researchers in disciplines as broad as psychology and neuroscience have studied human framing (though the terms they use to describe it vary, including “templates”, “abstractions”, “representations”, and “schemas”). Humans think in mental models and can frame or even reframe problems.

Mental models are representations of reality that make the world comprehensible. They allow us to see patterns, predict how things will unfold, and make sense of the circumstances we encounter. In this sense, mental models bring order. They let us focus on essential things and ignore others – just as, at a cocktail party, we can hear the conversation that we’re in while tuning out the chatter around us.

Think of frames as abstract maps. Maps delineate space and pinpoint a location. Like frames, maps cater to specific purposes. And just as we pick frames – depending on the demands we have and the decision we face – the maps we select are a considered choice, with consequences for how we understand the world and act in it. If you are in a city like Paris or Berlin and want to go from one part of town to another, you probably don’t want to use Google Earth. You’re better off with a transit map. These maps make it easy to identify where individual bus or train lines intersect. Transit maps are masterpieces for what they leave out. They’re designed so people can envision possible routes to reach a destination and choose the most expedient one. But good luck to the persons who take their transit map aboveground to find their way around town!

Frames not only guide us to our goals, but they also shape our broader worldview. Seeing the world through a particular cognitive lens may gradually turn into a more general dimension of one’s reasoning.

Counterfactual Thinking

Perhaps more importantly, frames let us envisage what is not there. They help us think in counterfactuals, which are imagined alternatives to reality – hypotheses of a world in which one or several things are changed.

This is a superpower that everyone possesses. There may be many reasons why we can’t observe something directly. We may not have the time to collect information, or cannot make the effort, or we cannot gather the data at all because it eludes us – as was the case for BioNTech’s founders at the onset of the pandemic. In all these situations, we don’t directly see what’s there, but our mental models can fill in the blanks. They extend our ability to reach decisions by harnessing our imagination, letting us transcend the immediate and embrace ideas that are more general and abstract.

Thinking in counterfactuals comes naturally to us. It enables us to imagine the information we do not have while making sense of the information we do have. Take the sentences: “John wanted to become king. He went to get some arsenic.” For a moment, they seem unconnected. Then we apply counterfactual thinking to fill in the connection – and as we play out a mental simulation, perhaps a wry smile fills our face.


Francis de Véricourt is Professor of Management Science and the director of the Center for Decisions, Models and Data (DMD-Center) at ESMT Berlin. He has a MS degree in applied mathematics and computer science at the Grenoble Institute of Technology as well as a PhD degree from Université Paris VI, France

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