7 Mental Models in Psychology To Prevent Malicious Behavior

Sometimes we are brilliant with people. Sometimes we are appallingly malevolent. It seems like it never occurred to anyone that we could do something about this. But how can we treat others, and ourselves, better?

To uncover the ugliness in the way we think and behave. So we can become not only better parents, leaders, partners, but better people in general. We should study human psychology.

Understand not only how we behave. But why do we behave the way we do.

Below, you will see 7 mental models in the field of psychology.

These mental tools will help you better understand how we instinctively act.

Once we are more familiar with our underlying motives, we can better respond to situations. Thus, avoid hurting others and ourselves.

7 Mental Models in Psychology:

1. Operant Conditioning

Also called Skinnerian conditioning. Operant conditioning explains that the outcomes of our actions determine our future behavior.

A simple example is this: If you do something that reinforces your wallet or your emotions in a positive way, you will likely repeat this action. Conversely, an action that leads to pain and struggle will occur less frequently.

Burrhus Skinner, the founder of this human mental shortcut, explained that the best way to understand human behavior is to closely observe “the causes of an action and its consequences.”1

In simple terms, if you do something and if others cheer you about it, this behavior tends to be repeated (i.e., strengthened). If you do something, and you’re not applauded, or worse, you are discouraged, the behavior will be slowly reduced (i.e., weakened).

This is extremely important to understand for two main reasons:

First, if you’re a parent or a manager. And if you tend to respond negatively to the actions of your kids or your employees, they will try to avoid you. Even worse. They might start covering their mistakes to avoid verbal punishment.

Second, the more you praise others, and yourself. The more you’ll improve the participation. The idea is to encourage people. To believe in abilities and their skills even if they don’t believe in themselves, yet.

Remember, the more positive sensations we receive after certain actions will lead to more of this behavior.

Once we know this, it makes sense to think of ways to reward more frequently behavior that we usually take for granted.

2. Signaling Theory

Signaling plays a major part in our lives.

In essence, the signaling theory tells us that we’re highly motivated to signal to others our best qualities.

In the animal world, where the competition is fierce. Species have evolved in a sophisticated way to make their strength clearly noticeable.

This can be observed when peacocks are showcasing their feathers. Or, when giant bullfrogs are battling for a mate.

In our daily lives, signaling is when we dress in luxury clothes, when we buy expensive things, the way we walk, behave, our hand movements, etc.

Signals can vary depending on the situation. We can be honest and our motivations can be purely altruistic. But that’s not always the case. Oftentimes, we act. We try to boost the positive signal – by showcasing our brightest side in a glamorous way – hoping that others won’t see our flaws.

Why do we do all of this?

Primarily, because there is a lot to lose. If you’re not selected, approved by others. You don’t get the job. You don’t get to join the community. And most importantly, you don’t reproduce and pass on your genes.

Everything you do – or don’t do – signals to others what type of person you are.

If you’re wearing designer clothes and driving an expensive car. You want to signal to others that you hold power. That you mean business.

Having this in mind, consider what do you want others to think when they interact with you – and why you want to instill such thoughts – and signal this with your behavior and looks.

3. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Invented by the genius Abraham Maslow. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs represents how a journey to a fully fulfilled life looks like.

What is often represented as a pyramid, aims to place in one single visual element what we need to obtain to feel complete and satisfied with our existence.

I actually wrote an entire article about how the hierarchy of needs helps us understand why we’re still not operating at full speed – reasons you’re not excelling.

Here’s the simplified version of the hierarchy of needs by Abraham Maslow:

Maslow's hierarchy of needs pyramid
  • Physiological needs: Rest; Food; Water; Air; Sex.
  • Safety needs: Safety; Security; Money.
  • Social: Intimate relationships; Friends.
  • Esteem needs: Feeling of accomplishment; Prestige; Confidence; Respect.
  • Self-actualization: Achieving full potential; Becoming the person you ought to be.

The beauty of this model is that it gives you a clear direction of what you need to aim for. Also, it explains why having all the money in the world will never fully satisfy you.

Money – as you can see – is at the bottom of the pyramid. You need it to take care of your most basic needs. But to feel complete, you need to aim higher.

4. Illusion of Control

As the name of this mental model suggests, the illusion of control is our inclination to believe that we have more control over events than we actually have little control over.

Deep inside, we have a psychological need to feel in control of the current situation. That’s why we give meaning – or create meaning – to events that are not at all related to a given outcome.

For instance, based on your personal observation. You might conclude that wearing a specific pair of socks gives you an advantage when you’re negotiating. Thus, you will always wear this specific pair when you’re about to have a meeting with important clients.

Another common example is the close door buttons in elevators. Elevator companies exposed that these buttons often do not actually work. They are designed to give you a false perception of control.2

Based on this principle. It’s useful to think deeply about what you’re actually in control of. There are things you can do and things you can’t. Identifying the two will save you a lot of frustration and help you focus on the right things without worrying about the things you can’t control.

5. Mere-Exposure Effect

Considered a psychological phenomenon, this mental model says that we become drawn to the people and the objects we most commonly see and use.

You start to love something merely because it’s well known.

The advantage of this familiarity principle is that we develop long-lasting relationships. The more we interact with a group of people, the more we become emotionally attached to them. We are there when they need us and vice versa.

The obvious negative effect is that we can learn to love things, people even, that are negatively affecting us.

You keep being friends with people who are not treating you well simply because you’re more familiar with them. Similarly, you probably keep working in the same company that’s not paying you well simply because you feel strangely secure in your spot.

The solution to avoid damaging relationships is kind of obvious: explore. Expose yourself to more people and more career opportunities.

6. Status Quo Bias

Status quo bias can be a real pain and prevent you from making improvements in your life or business.

In short, what this mental model says is that by default, we chose the status quo. The most generic option.

Why do we do it?

Well, it feels safe to bet on what’s well known and familiar.

One example of the status quo bias is that we’ll most probably invest most of our money in funds that are commonly selected by the masses.

That’s why we tend to buy bestseller books and choose the most popular option in a store.

Since we want to avoid losses. We see the status quo option as the least risky choice. We tell ourselves, “Since everyone is betting on this. It must be good. I’ll take it.”

The positive side of this way of thinking is obvious. In most cases, the common option is indeed good.

However, if we always rely on the status quo. If we never try to make changes in the current conditions. We’ll never get something beyond the ordinary.

7. Norm of Reciprocity

In the book Influence. Robert Cialdini talks in length about how you can use the concept of reciprocity to build strong relationships and also grow your business.

This is a basic human characteristic that you probably know, but it’s worth mentioning again.

In simple terms, the norm of reciprocity explains that if we get something from someone, we’ll do everything possible to return the favor.

The application of this prime way of acting is huge.

For example, you can avoid conflicts by first offering something to the person wanting to attack you. He’ll feel strangely motivated to repay you. Also, you can win the hearts and the minds of people by freely sharing your knowledge and expertise.

The most useful aspect is that the norm of reciprocity creates positive conditions for cooperation.

The more people help each other, the more they’ll continue to help each other.

Some Closing Thoughts

Human psychology is the scientific study of the human mind and the way it operates. There is no better way to begin making a positive change in your life, your relationships with others, and the way you treat yourself than studying the fundamentals.

Of course, there are plenty of other mental shortcuts that explain our perception and behavior.

The 7 mention above, portray some of the most common ways of thinking and behaving when amongst others.

Study them carefully and then consider how you currently use them. Of each, ask, “Am I using this mental model for doing good, or I’m doing it to hurt others and/or myself?”

For more on mental models, consider the following:

Trouble Saying No to Temptations?

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  1. McLeod, Saul. What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work? Simply Psychology blog.
  2. ‘Door Close’ Buttons On Most Elevators Don’t Actually Work. CBS Boston blog.
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