Webinar Notes: Shifting Mental Models to Advance Systems Change

Title: Shifting Mental Models to Advance Systems Change

Offered by: FSGNew Profit, and the Collective Impact Forum.

-Tammy Heinz, Program Officer, Hogg Foundation
-Hayling Price, Senior Consultant, FSG
-Darrell Scott, Founder, PushBlack
-Julie Sweetland, Vice President for Strategy and Innovation, Frameworks Institute
-Rick Ybarra, Program Officer, Hogg Foundation

Hayling Price:

  • “Systems change is about shifting conditions that are holding a problem in place”
  • “It’s not about getting more young people to beat the odds. It’s about changign the odds”
  • 6 conditions of systems change
    • structural change (policies, practices, resource flows (who gets funding and why? how are human resources allocated) [explicit – easiest to find and to change]
    • relationships & connections (not just having someone on your LinkedIn, but actually engaging), power dynamics (who is getting funded and why? some people have a leg up, some people are dealing with a history of oppression) [semi-explicit]
    • transformative change (mental models) [implicit]
  • mental models: deeply held beliefs, assumptions, etc.
  • the policies, practice, resource flows are not handed to us by nature – they are created by humans based on our mental models

Darrell Scott

  • PushBlack – nation’s largest nonprofit media platform for Black people
  • 4 millions subscribers with emotionally-driven stories about Black history, culture, and current events
  • through Facebook Messenger – meeting people where they are at
  • Go to Facebook Messenger and search “PushBlack” to sign up!
  • ran the largest get-out-the-vote campaign on social media in history in 2018
    • got subscribers to contact their friends (relates to relationships and connections part of the conditions of system change)
  • giving subscribers tools to work at the local level (e.g., to be heard when Black people are killed by police, to free innocent Black people)
  • test their messages with small subset of audience before sending out only the best performing messages to the broader audience)

Julie Sweetland

  • uses the phrase “cultural models”, which is similar concept from anthropology
  • “cultural models are cognitive short cuts created through years of experience and expectation. They are largely automatic assumptions, and can be implicit”
  • People rely on cultural models to interpret, organize and make meaning out of all sorts of stimuli, from daily experiences to social issues”
  • believe that understanding mental/cultural models helps you to understand what are the mental models that are holding a problem in place
  • e.g., Google image search “ocean” and the top hits are pictures of “beautiful blue expanse” – this is a mental model that Americans hold of the ocean – this holds implications for policy:
    • people think it is so big, that it’s invincible
    • people think it’s water and think about the surface – not thinking about what’s underneath, about how it’s an ecosystem, it produces oxygen, it affects weather, etc.
  • it’s not that the ocean isn’t blue or isn’t big, but that’s just a piece of the picture
  • e.g., some people’s mental model of “teenager”, is about “risk and rebellion” – people defying expectations from adults. Again, not a complete picture.
  • 3 models are consistently barriers to productive conversations on social issues (especially in American context, but they’ve also seen them internationally):
    • individualism: assumption that problems, solutions, and consequences happen at the personal level
    • us vs. them: assumption that another social group is distinct, different, and problematic (beyond people – can be human vs. animals; environment vs. economy)
    • fatalism: assumption that social problems are too big, too bad, or too difficult to fix
  • there are also mental models that are specific to a given situation, but the above three tend to show up in lots of areas
  • one thing that doesn’t work: correcting their mistakes
    • “myth busters” – they don’t work! A study of myth-fact structure found: people misremembered the myths as true, got worse over time, and they attributed the false information to the CDC (Skumik et al (2005), JAMA)
    • mental models are there because we’ve heard it so many times. When you restate a “bad” mental model, you reinforce it (e.g., if you state: Myth: Flu vaccines cause the flu, you reinforce their mental model that flu vaccines cause the flu (doesn’t matter that you said it was a “myth”))
    • never remind people of things you wish they’d forget
  • another thing that doesn’t work: giving people more information
    • isn’t not that you shouldn’t use facts
    • but if people have a particular mental model, stacking data on top does not change their mental model
    • you need to help them build a new mental model
  • another thing that doesn’t work: leaving causation to the public imagination doesn’t work
    • leaving people with their bad mental models won’t help
  • instead of trying to rebut people’s misunderstanding – try to redirect attention to what is true and how things do work

Tammy Heinz and Rick Ybarra

  • Hogg Foundation for Mental Health
  • historically funded lots of program and research
  • Mental Health has been focused on diagnosis and treatments, with end goal of symptom reduction
  • now moving their work upstream
  • traditionally, there has been a medical/disease model of health
  • in the 1970s, people started thinking about if mental health was really chronic or could people get better from this
  • shifting a mental model is not something that can happen quickly
  • in the past 20 years, there’s been some deliberate work to shift the thinking around mental health
  • huge shift towards peers helping in mental health care teams
  • thinking about “recovery” – it’s not an expectation of only symptom control


  • there are multiple mental models on an issue – you can call up a more productive mental model (e.g., maybe “fatalism” if the first thing that comes to mind, but you can call up a more productive mental model)
  • how do you figure out what mental models people are using?
    • Hayling: we are constantly testing out models through our work
    • Julie: ask people “what are ideas you wish you’d never hear again?” and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the mental models that are being a problem
  • how do you change mental models around emotionally charged issues?
    • Rick: listening. Figure out what mental models are driving things. Really learn and understand where people are coming from.
    • Tammy: being clear about where you want to go
    • Hayling: make things plain
    • Julie: call people in rather than calling them out

Update: Here’s a link to the recording of the webinar.

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