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Explanations > Thinking > Force-fitting

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When trying to make sense of things, we sometimes are too keen to fit what we hear or think into our existing library of models of the world and how it works. In effect, we ignore things that do not fit and even fabricate things to improve the fit, just so we can say 'Oh, it is one of those'.

We force-fit experiences, ideas, what others tell us and more. The only goal is that it all works together and there are no annoying contradictions within our mental system we use to represent and interpret the world.


When we meet other people, we quickly categorize them, then force-fit what they say into what we expect that type of person to say.

When thinking about a career in law, a student uses the model of it making you rich and callous. She moves on to other, more apparently moral careers.


We see the world through the lens of our mental models as a way to quickly and easily make sense in our perceptions. This is like navigating using a map we drew in the past. Mostly, it works well, but sometimes the territory and the map disagree. Force-fitting thoughts is like deciding the map is right and the land in front of you is wrong. It sounds crazy, by we mentally do this surprisingly often.

Often, the difference between reality and our thoughts is relatively minor and a simple fudge is good enough. At other times the gap is much larger, yet we are too lazy to take time to improve our models or even create new ones.

So what?

When things happen that do not fit with your current understanding, step back and pause. Rather than fudging, tweaking or otherwise changing the new item to fit, first accept that it is different, and this need not be a bad thing. Then look for more evidence that this appears elsewhere. Try thinking differently about it. Maybe even you need to change your existing mental models.

To persuade others, it is easier to give them things that fit within their current paradigms. You can, however, also deliberately give them something that does not fit, for example in order to create confusion in which you can offer a more acceptable alternative. In doing this, do not let them dismiss your proposal, for example by using an assertive approach. Like the drowning person grasping at straws, they are now more likely to retreat to your kinder suggestion.

See also

Models, Cognitive Evaluation Theory, Cognitive Dissonance


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