An Introduction to Mental Models

What are mental models and how are they useful?

By definition, a model is a simplified representation of reality. The real world is a very complex system and our minds have a limited capacity to store everything that we perceive through our senses. In order for us to understand and function in this complex world, we use mental models of how the world works. These are constructs that simplify reality enough that we can act and think accordingly.

Despite being incorrect, based on their definition, mental models are very useful: Here just a handful of examples that make models useful:

  1. You can use models to understand the world better. This is what science helps us do. Think about Newton’s gravity model. While it’s not correct (as anyone who’s taken quantum mechanics will tell you) it is extremely useful.
  2. You use models every day to shortcut decision-making by using proven methods, best practices and guidelines. For example in direct marketing there’s a model called RFM (recency, frequency, monetary) This model allows a business to optimize their mailing list or email list and prioritize it by how recently a customer responded, how often they respond and how much did they spend. This is a simple model that can greatly influence the growth of your business even if you don’t know a lot about your customers.
  3. Understand how another person thinks and why they think the way they think and influence them. Models don’t just apply to reality, they also apply to human behavior. Psychology has created many different categorization systems for people, such as systems based on personality, information processing, etc. A good example of this is the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) profile that categorizes people based on Carl Jung’s ideas on types and archetypes. Once you understand where someone falls in those categories, it allows you to understand them, accept them and even influence them.
  4. Predict the future. One of the most powerful uses of  models is their ability to predict with a relative accuracy what will happen next. As you know, humans are creatures of habit and unless we refactor our thinking we will keep using the same models over and over again, which makes us predictable to a certain extent. Predicting what someone will say or do next helps you stay a few moves ahead of them and influence them in powerful ways. The effects of this are even bigger when it’s done within a closed system or context where the rules are well-defined (such as in a game of chess or at work)
  5. Influence and improve yourself. We’ll talk more about this below.

The dark side of models

Because models are essentially simplifications, by default they have limitations. It’s very important to understand the limitations of a model when it comes to using them. You have to start thinking in terms of probabilities and be keenly aware of the models you’re using. If you keep getting undesirable results in a certain context in your life, it’s likely that you’re using an implicit mental model.

By refactoring your thoughts, you can make these models explicit and then change them to expand your thinking. I have a personal example of the kind of refactoring that can happen inadvertently when you read a book or article.

About 4-5 years ago, I heard about a book called The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. The title sounded very intriguing so I picked it up and started to read it. Within the first chapter, I was not only hooked, but my jaw had dropped. My entire life’s mental model of “study hard, get good grades, go to college, get a good job, save money, retire, enjoy life” had been completely shattered to pieces and replaced with a new one called “lifestyle design”

Without getting too much into detail about what “lifestyle design” is (you should really pick up the book and read it. I highly recommend it), I can tell you that this book changed everything about how I think about life, work, retirement, savings, etc. Books like that are rare, but the do come along.

In conclusion, before this turns into a book, mental models are very powerful and as such they can be extremely useful but also severely limiting. Understanding how they work, and how you can refactor them into more useful patterns, will go a long way towards making you intelligent, influential and make life a bliss. .