Essays

The Dangers of Mental Models – Intro to Mental Models Continued

In the previous post, I talked about what mental models are and how important they are to your thinking. As we delve  deeper into refactored thinking, mental models are going to become crucial in understanding and implementing the process of refactoring your thoughts.

Mental Model Pitfalls:

First I want to talk about a few pitfalls that are common with mental models of any kind.

There is a tendency of humans to want to simplify things in order to understand them better, but sometimes this simplification is over the top and we end up with a dumbed down model. There are two fallacies that are direct descendants of this tendency.

The first one I call the Single Model Fallacy, and it’s something that plagued me for a long time. The single model fallacy is very simply the tendency for wanting to explain everything with the same model. This is not really anything new, as science has been pushing the idea that there is a single unifying theory that explains everything.

We see the same thing in areas like psychology, where different models of therapy from Freud to Skinner tried to explain human behavior and every single one of them claimed that their model was the right model. I subscribed to this view for way too long, trying desperately to come up with a single unifying theory for why we act the way we do.

It wasn’t until I read this quote from Charlie Munger (Warrant Buffett’s partner and a millionaire in his own right) that I started to see my own faulty thinking. Mr. Munger claims that all you really need to make a decision is a “latticework of mental models” from various disciplines:

“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head”.  –Charlie Munger (Wordly Wisdom)

The second one, I call Model Reduction and Mapping, and it’s the idea of reducing something new that you don’t know so that it maps into an existing set of concepts in your mind which you already know and understand.

When you’re learning new concepts and ideas, you tend to try and make sense of them from a frame of reference that you already know. For example if you’re studying physics, you will try and map the concepts you learn onto their math counterparts (speed is the a derivative of distance and acceleration is a derivative of speed) This helps you integrate your learning and refactor your thoughts so you understand things better.

There’s an inherent danger to this reduction. It prevents you from learning new things. If you’re always trying to map new concepts into existing concepts, you never learn new things and your view of the world tends to collapse rather than expand.

Ideologies, cults and religions, have an inherent (and secret I might add) interest in teaching you how to reduce and map new concepts into its existing set of beliefs. They use techniques such as relabeling, and reframing to make it seem like every new idea is something that you already know about if you study their stuff. The collapsing effect is absolutely necessary in order to keep people mentally “chained” to them.

How do you prevent this from happening?

The first step is to allow any new material to fit into its own box in your mind and let it simmer there until you’ve had the time to look it over and refactor it into either an existing model, or under its own category. 

As far as the single model fallacy, it’s important to understand that the world as we know it is a far more complicated system that we make it out to be. It might be decades before theoretical physicists even agree on a unifying model of the world if they even get there. Human behavior is another very complex process to fully comprehend. Until then, we have plenty of available models to explain it and to influence it. Don’t stick to just one!

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. .