How to Figure Out People by Getting Inside Their Head

Figuring out people is the first step to having any sort of successful interaction or relation with them. You do this already in your mind, you create mental models of others and you think that you “know” them, when in reality the model you’ve created suffers from severe limitations.

The ability to understand what people think and feel is a learned skill and one that will take you far both in your career and in your friendships and relationships. In fact, this is the first level of how to get rapport with people.

Before we go too far, let’s discuss a few basic principles.

Basic Principles

  1. People are both complex and simple at the same time. Given certain circumstances and context, you act in very predictable ways (assuming that you aren’t trying to actively dissent or break the rules, which by the way has its own predictability)
  2. People interpret their world through their mental models, which are unique to them and thus different from yours. If you use your own models to try and understand people (aka. projection), it might work to some degree, but it will most likely be wrong. Everyone’s behavior makes perfect sense to them, so if you don’t understand someone, the problem isn’t them, it’s you.
  3. People’s behavior tends to homogenize to their context, their emotional state and their emotional motivations (such as needs, wants, desires, fears, frustrations). Regardless of how unique you think you are, your behavior is typically very predictable in a given context, or if you are in a certain emotional state.
  4. Watch out for the fundamental attribution error, which states that you tend to attribute behavior or thoughts to internal “‘traits” rather than external factors. For example when you notice that someone keeps eating candy despite wanting to lose weight, you will invariably think of the person as “weak-willed” when in reality, just the fact that candy is easily available contributes a huge effect to the behavior (see Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink).
  5. Always revise the models you build of people as new behaviors or stories are revealed that are inconsistent with the existing model. Either the inconsistent behavior is a special case, or it’s part of a larger pattern and can thus be generalized to fit the previous model.

This blog is primarily about how we tend to use mental models to understand the world and how that affects both our thinking and our behavior. When it comes to figuring out people, the same ideas apply. You create mental models of people in order to understand them, but more often than not, these are too complex to remember. We’ll talk about how to make this really easy a little bit later.

Before we cover the really cool stuff we have to cover some theory, concepts, which play a very fundamental role in understanding people and getting inside their head. If you get this, people will no longer seem a mystery to you.

Let’s start by introducing a system for generalized people reading. When you see a behavior you don’t understand or when you’re trying to get a read on someone, start out with very broad ideas and work yourself towards more narrow and more fine tuned ideas. Here’s the logical progression:


Context comes first. As we talked about in principle 3, behavior tends to homogenize to context. Context can be anything, from something like “work” to something like “friendship” or “dating.” The reason behavior is homogeneous to context is because most contexts have pre-determined rules of what you should and shouldn’t do. Context can also determine lower level concepts such as emotional state and emotional motivations.


Next comes emotional state. Your intuitions about someone’s emotional state are generally correct and on point. You can easily tell when someone is happy, or upset, or stressed; being too quiet or is very excited, or disgusted. Emotional state drives behavior much more than what is commonly referred to as “personality” or “traits”

This is why someone who you might have pegged as quiet, has an outburst when they’re angry or excited. To you it might seem “out of character” when in reality it’s the emotions doing the driving. They might be quiet most of the time, but that doesn’t mean they will stay quiet under certain emotional states.

For example in the context of work, if the president of the company is fuming over the low sales numbers, will you try and talk to him or her about a raise at that exact moment? Probably not, in fact even children know better. They wait until their parents are relaxed before asking for anything.

Emotional Motivations

Emotional motivations are the next level down in specificity. They encompass things like emotional needs, wants, desires, fears, frustrations and are usually not visible on the surface.

For example in the context of work, what do you think the primary motivations of the VP of sales will be? “keep my job => increase sales” So if you’re the VP of technology and you’re talking to the VP of sales about the new website, will you tell them how the latest version of JQuery  makes animations on the site smoother or will you tell them how the speed of the new site will lead to easier and faster sales? What will get them more excited?

Emotional motivations have deeper nuances and are usually harder to grasp, but if you study them and understand them, you will be light-years ahead of everyone. You will understand and connect with people on a level that they’ve never experienced before. Most of our core motivators are actually hidden, sometimes even to us, which is why you can’t simply ask them directly. More on this on a future post.

How can you simplify the process of figuring out people even more?

To do this, I’ll introduce you to two very simple and easy to grasp (but powerful) concepts that relate to mental models and allow you to “package” behavior into a more easily remembered label.

Introduction to Archetypes and Doctrines

The idea of using archetypes and doctrines to understand people came to me while reading the book Tempo by Venkatesh Rao. He is the author of a blog called which I find very inspirational because of its depth and nuance in the exploration of ideas. In relation to mental models, archetypes and doctrines are both more meta (i.e. higher logical level) concepts.

An archetype is a collection of behavioral patterns that fit into a very nice, easy to remember description or label. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung advanced the concept by creating his Jungian archetypes which were later used to create the MBTI profiling tool. Needless to say, you don’t have to do an MBTI profile of someone in order to understand them (but if you know it, it can help)

(Side note: I have a general distrust of profiling and personality measuring tools in telling you who you “really” are because they tend to be context specific and cannot possibly cover the nuanced depths of our characters)

In literature, archetypes are used to create rich, multifaceted characters. A few common literary archetypes are “the hero”, “the knight”, “the princess”, etc. Most characters you see in movies or novels today are based primarily in archetypes because you intuitively understand them and they provide a very solid foundation upon which to build interesting and colorful characters.

A doctrine is merely a codification of beliefs into a system. There are some negative associations of the word doctrine with religion, but in its purest sense, a doctrine is nothing more than a collection of mental models that fit into a system. Doctrines can help simplify a lot of decision making.

Archetypes and doctrines can also help you package all the above concepts we discussed (context, state, motives) into one easily understood label.

Archetypes in action

In order to understand archetypes, I will focus on a single context. I’m assuming you can easily expand this to all contexts.

Let’s take the world of business. There are several archetypes that play in here.

  • Archetype: The careerist
  • Doctrine: “It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters who you know”
  • Archetype: The hard-charging, Type-A manager
  • Doctrine: “By any means necessary”
  • Archetype: The stressed-out hard worker
  • Doctrine: “On time and on budget”
  • Archetype: The slacker
  • Doctrine: “Do the minimum necessary to not get fired”

There’s obviously more, but hopefully these illustrations will help you see the infinite possibilities that you can have in trying to understand people. Notice how each archetype and doctrine nicely packages and explains emotional states and emotional motivations. Notice also how predictable their behavior becomes given the context of business.

Implicit vs. Explicit Mental Models

There are two kinds of mental models, implicit and explicit. They are categorized based on the acquisition method (i.e. how did they end up in our mind)

Explicit Mental Models

Explicit models are the ones you learn from studying various disciplines such as math, physics, economics, etc. In my last post I talked about Charlie Munger and his mental models he uses to evaluate deals and make investment decisions.

He draws them out of various disciplines and then uses them in contexts where they weren’t necessarily built to be used. For example, my background is in computer science which teaches the principles of computing.

Taking that model and applying it to any electronics device has allowed me to fix a lot of non-computer gadgets. It’s a great model to use for that purpose, but it fails terribly when applied to human interactions. You’ll need another model for that.

Another good example is the supply and demand model from economics. It’s a wonderful model for understanding many facets of human behavior. It can be applied on a micro level – like one-to-one daily transactions between humans – and on a macro level – like the economy of a country.

Note: Both the above examples illustrate the limits and failure of models in general, something that was discussed previously.

These are both examples of explicit models, where you learn the model from an outside source and then you apply it to a situation where it works.

Implicit models are the ones that your mind creates out of various patterns it notices around it through the five senses. The mind is a pattern matching machine. It seeks out patterns in the randomness and tries to make sense of it by creating models. These are also known as generalizations or beliefs.

Implicit Mental Models

Implicit mental models are harder to detect because they work essentially behind the scenes, filtering and distorting reality to fit what we believe. Yes, in case you didn’t know it, when presented with evidence, humans don’t change their minds. Instead, they interpret the facts through their internal mental models, but this is a discussion for another day.

How do you pick up these implicit mental models? There are several ways. First it’s through our culture. Culture indoctrinates us without us even being aware of it. You don’t know it’s there, you don’t know why it’s there, you just assume that’s how things are supposed to be. In fact, many people are unaware of indoctrination effect their culture has until they leave their country and live abroad for a while.

Second it’s through media. This is impossible to escape; every show you watch, every magazine or newspaper article, every movie, every song has built in assumptions and ends up reinforcing the same mental models about reality over and over.

For example, it’s impossible to watch a romantic comedy nowadays without implicitly believing that you’re supposed to have some spark or chemistry with someone right off the bat in order to fall in love, which is then a prerequisite for a successful relationship and marriage. It’s only when you study the history of society that you understand that marriages in the past were often arranged for economical or political reasons.

Third it’s through your peer group. Even if you don’t try, if you hang out with a group of people long enough, you’ll eventually start to change and adapt your mental models to fit those of the leader of the group. This is done completely outside of your awareness, but the processes that occur in your mind (such as reframing and the change of meaning) are very powerful and can be utilized on purpose to upgrade your mind.

How do these models compare?

Of the two, implicit models are the ones that seem to be more deeply entrenched and more likely to be outside of awareness. I believe this is due to the nature of the acquisition method. If the model was installed outside of our awareness, it will tend to operate outside of our awareness and control (or regulate) our life as it on autopilot.

There are benefits to this of course. Since the brain can rely on a predetermined pattern, it doesn’t need to expend energy again to solve the same problem in the future. It writes neurological software and then sets it on autopilot. Unless you explicitly go in and look at the code (by becoming aware of the underlying model) and refactoring it.

Experiments performed on mice in a maze show that brain activity is very high the first time that the mouse runs through the maze to find the hidden piece of cheese. After that, subsequent trials show brain activity leveling off as mice learn the path to the cheese. (see The Power of Habit by Charles Duhig)

On the other hand, being deeply entrenched, implicit models are very difficult to modify when you’re trying to rid yourself of some unwanted pattern of thought or behavior. Explicit models on the other hand, can also get deeply entrenched – this depends a great deal on the emotional charge during the “installation” process – but in general tend to be easily updated, upgraded or removed.

If you’ve learned Newtonian physics and then you delve into general relativity, it’s easy to update your mental model which now becomes more enriched. The only trouble seems to be having the model you’ve learned from a book available to you in the moment when you need it to make a decision or solve a problem.

The power of context

One of the properties of mental models is the concept of a context or situation when or where a model is appropriate. A context can be something like work or home or with friends” You could have the most amazing set of explicit models “installed” in your mind but if they don’t permeate through to the right context, you’ll find yourself using sub-optimal response and behavior patterns.

For example, you could have a set of useful mental models that you use at work, with your colleagues, bosses, underlings, etc. You could be the best manager in the company; your employees could love you, your colleagues could be asking you for advice, but when you go home you find yourself yelling at your spouse or your children. In fact you could be a completely different person.

It’s all in the power of implicit and explicit models. You’re not a different person, you just have a different set of models you could be using implicitly for family life and the work life models don’t seem to permeate there. You’d have to first become aware of them and then put in some effort in order to get them “copied” over.

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. .