Oversimplified Mental Models


A wise friend of mine mentioned the irony of someone apologizing for misgendering a pet, or God forbid, someone’s infant … yet that same person will then cheerfully and pointedly misgender trans girls.

This issue reminds me of a guy friend of mine, whom I’ve known for 25+ years. We would walk through fire for each other. When my Jeep broke down in the Nevada desert in the summer, he was the guy I called for help. He’s the most brave and masculine guy I know, and very much a bottom-line, cut-the-crap type of guy. He likes me as a friend, because I’m a good friend to him too, and he likes my values, and that’s that. He liked me before I came out as a trans girl, and he likes me after I came out — but he did mention that he grew up on a farm, and when he wants to discerns the sex or gender of an animal he picks it up, turns it upside down and he looks, and that’s that. So, not that he wants to debate it, but he’s not all that convinced that I’m really a girl because he’s pretty sure I have “outie” plumbing (and indeed I do).

For animals, his approach is good (unless that species of animal can also be trans, who knows). But sex (as in male/female) is not the same as gender. So much as my friend is a good friend, he’s oversimplifying. Some people are born (as autopsies later showed) with a male structure “down there” and yet a fundamentally female brain structure. And much as it’s important to be able to write my name in the snow, or do my girlfriend without having to go buy a strap-on, it’s my brain that fundamentally makes me what I am.

My friend is oversimplifying on another point too: Not even sex organs are binary. Many people are born intersexed. Also, not many — but certainly some — people even have brain structures that are neither fundamentally male nor female. So even as to gender, it can get pretty darn fluid.

As humans, we need simplicity so as to function. I have another beyond-utterly-brilliant lovely friend who’s on the autism spectrum somewhere, as probably am I, but it’s safe to say she’s to the right of where I am. Hardly any answer I get from her is simple. It’s almost always a vastly complex analysis with disclaimers, context, exceptions, pros and cons when really all I wanna know is whether or not it’s OK for me to now put the darn milk bottle back in the refrigerator. Bottom line, I need to decide, and act. The milk bottle is either going into the fridge right now or it’s not: Yes or No. The phrase “I just need a yes or a no” is something I frequently say to her. Simplicity is a big help for me in living my life. As humans, we need to make decisions and act on then. The traffic light toward which my car is hurtling turns amber, and I’m going to step on just one pedal really hard, and it’s a binary decision: accelerator or brake. I “get it.” We need things to be simple.

Problem is, sometimes in using a mental model for decision-making, we oversimplify, and when reality is more complex than our oversimplified mental model, we end up making bad decisions with bad consequences. When we use oversimplified mental models in the context of trans issues, we’ll make bad decisions about trans issues.

As an analogy: ironically, this same friend has a dad who owned an automobile electrical repair shop. The dad is brilliant and famous for fixing and troubleshooting every car ever made, so maybe ten years ago when my 1987 BMW 325 was having erratic temperature-gauge issues, I brought it to him for repair. He messed with it for more than a week and finally gave me the car back and said “I can’t fix it.” Basically, he had chased the wiring from the temperature sensor to the gauge, including to ground in both places. That’s how temperature-indicating circuits normally work. He’d even bought a new gauge from BMW, and he’d tested the sending unit thoroughly. Yet, he couldn’t solve the problem because he was using an oversimplified mental model. The model worked well for more-simple cars but not for this BMW, because the BMW has a tiny battery pack integral to the instrument cluster, to accurately store the service interval settings even when the main battery goes flat. When the tiny battery pack finally goes flat after 20 years or so, the instrument cluster electronics, including the temp gauge, go haywire. It’s a $10 fix to get new batteries from Batteries and Bulbs and they’ll even solder them in, but unless you include these little batteries in your mental model, then you’re unable to deal with the reality of the situation. Mental models are useful, but oversimplified models are problematic because they will create the classic human tragedy of someone trying to to the right thing while actually doing the wrong thing.

It’s one thing to misdiagnose a BMW but often the stakes are life or death, such as well-meaning parents whose oversimplified mental models on sexuality and gender lead to a dynamic in which their gay or trans teenage kid accepts the parents’ premise, evaluates himself/herself to be a bad person in that context, and commits suicide.

Often, the tragedy is not even that evident. Many kids don’t kill themselves but they dutifully accept self-hatred as the proper thing to do, and they lead a miserable life of subsequent self-flaggelation whether it’s cutting themselves or less-obviously destructive things — all because (for all their superficial rebellious grand-standing) they fundamentally buy into the parents’ bad premise that gay or trans people are evil. Realizing that he/she himself/herself is gay or trans, the kid then applies that principle, concludes “so I’m a bad person then, unworthy of happiness” and to the parents’ consternation, then consequently pursues an agenda of self-punishment, possibly life-long … all because the parents chose an oversimplified mental model.


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