What is a Mental Model?
Mental models are frameworks used to help your thinking.
It’s a way to approach a problem through the lens of a specific discipline.
The world is an incredibly complex place riddled with millions of variables.
To simplify our problem solving we need abstractions.
We need models which consider only the most crucial elements needed to solve for x.
Models are formed when people in specific fields recognize recurring patterns.
These patterns lead to creation of formulas which become predictive of the observed phenomena.
An Example of a Mental Model
For instance, Parkinson’s Law is an interesting organisational model.
It states that:
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
If you give a contractor one week to finish a job, he will usually take the whole week to finish the job.
If you were to give him two weeks to finish the same job, don’t be surprised if he starts doing meaningful work only in the second week.
The mental model is not always correct.
You might have a situation in which the contractor is incentivised to prioritise your project and hence finishes early.
However, given the experience of millions of people in thousands of different industries we can see a recurring pattern.
The pattern is fractal.
It can be seen in the most mundane of tasks – Your internet provider taking the designated 7 days to get back to you.
It can also be seen in the highest levels of government – Staying in a country well past the intended time.
There are many psychological biases which make finishing work before schedule difficult for most people.
There are also systemic issues at play which most never consider.
With this model you don’t need to know the fine details, you simply apply the knowledge in your planning.
Why Do We Need a Lattice Work of Mental Models?
The Billionaire investor Charlie Munger famously said:
This ‘latticework of models’, is the beginning of what Munger calls having ‘Elementary Worldly Wisdom’.
A lattice is a structure which looks like the image below.
Each mental model we have is represented as a node in the system.
When you have multiple nodes from many different fields you can form interesting connections.
These connections strengthen your understanding of a given problem.
Similarly, in the world of physics and chemistry, the strongest materials (such as diamonds or graphene) have elaborate lattice configurations.
It’s a metaphor. The more nodes you have, the stronger your ability to discern the problem in front of you.
Each mental model allows you to see things from a different perspective.
This stops you from having too narrow of a focus.
When you see things from one perspective you are susceptible to blind spots.
Blind spots can get you killed.
Why does this happen?
Human beings have a tendency of habituation.
At work we like to park in the same spot.
At school we like to sit at the same desk.
Most nights we have dinner at the same time.
These habits continue into the mental domain.
When we become fond of a specific problem-solving method, we use it all the time.
We become the one trick pony.
Abraham Maslow called this ‘The Law of Instrument’.
Stop being the hammer man!
This is done by learning models from different disciplines and enhancing your elementary wisdom.
In your pursuit for better problem-solving you acquire tools from:
Every field has elementary but fundamental models which can be learned quickly and are incredibly predictive.
Most of these fields do not communicate with each other, so the opportunity for gaining higher insights is omitted.
You can bridge this gap by letting go of your rigidity to one discipline.
You embrace Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy of ‘Jeet Kune Do’ but on the mental plane.
“I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see “ourselves”. . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that. There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct, and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy. The closer to the true way of Kung Fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Finally, a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it. He is still hung up on his self-closing resistance, in this case, anchored down to a reactionary pattern, and naturally is still bound by another modified pattern and can move within its limits. He has not digested the simple fact that truth exists outside all molds; pattern and awareness is never exclusive. Again let me remind you Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.”
– Bruce Lee
Who would have thought that the explanation of our approach in obtaining mental models could be best explained by a martial artist?
If you want to get meta, Jeet Kune Do is a mental model to explain mental models.
List of Mental Models
The list below is not exhaustive and should serve only as a guide. Mental models will be added to the list in time with accompanying articles.
General and Robust Mental Models
The following are popular mental models extracted from several disciplines which have proven to be reliable time and time again.
- The Pareto Principle (80/20 rule)
- Margin of Safety
- First Principles Thinking
- Compounding Effect
- Confirmation Bias
Mental Models in Math and Engineering
- Multiplying by zero
- Surface Area
- Global and Local Maxima
- Feedback loop
- Break Points & Elastic limit
- Margin of Safety/factor of safety
Mental Models the sciences (Physics, Chemistry and Biology)
Isaac Newton’s Laws
- First Law of Motion: Inertia
- Second Law of Motion: Momentum
- Thirst Law of Motion: Reciprocal Actions
- Law of Gravitation
- Black Holes
- Wave Particle Duality
- Activation Energy
- Evolution and Natural Selection
- Hierarchical Organization
Mental Models in Business and Systems Thinking
- Second-order consequences & Unintended consequences
- Wholes and parts
- Feedback loops
- Stock and Flow
- System Hierarchy
- System Boundaries
- Black Swan Events
- Unique Selling Proposition (USP)
- Customer Avatar
- Point of diminishing returns
- Break Even Point
Mental Models in Spirituality, Religion, Occult
- The Golden Rule
- The Law of Karma
- The Law of Attraction
- The Law of Vibration
- Principle of correspondence
- Pendulums an Egregores
Mental Models in Psychology
- Classical Conditioning (Pavlov)
- Loss Aversion
- Social Proof
- Confirmation Bias
- Sunken loss Fallacy
- Consistency Bias
- Availability Heuristic
Mental Models for Logical Thinking
- Socratic Questioning
- The 5 Whys
- Occam’s Razor
- Hanlon’s Razor
- Via Negativa
Mental Models for microeconomics
- Agency Problem
- Skin in The Game