What are mental models?

Mental models are explanations of how things work.

Last week I realised I didn’t do a great job of outlining what mental models are and why they are useful.

I hope to remedy that this week.

Mental models are explanations of how things work. They shape how we think, how we understand new information, and how we assimilate new information into what we already know.

The best mental models will help make complex simple.

The key thing to understand is existing mental models decide what is more important when you make decisions.

That’s why it’s important to have a wide bucket of models to pull from.

The idea is the world is too complex for our brain to understand, so we construct models to help us organise the world into smaller, more manageable chunks. See chunking.

In economics, supply and demand is a mental model to help you understand the economy, and in computer science abstraction is a mental model to help you build software.

It doesn’t matter where a model comes from.

If it helps you understand something better, it’s useful.

You can always update an outdated model later as you learn more.

Jay Wright Forrester puts it nicely:

The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government or country. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system.

I’m a big believer that the quality of your thinking is tied to how many models you have in your head and how easily you are able to pass information through them.

The more models you have, the more perspectives you can take, and the more likely you have a model that fits the problem you’re trying to solve.

As the old saying goes, if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

It turns out, if you want to make better decisions variety matters.

To illustrate why, let’s divide people into two general camps (never a good idea but bear with me):

  • Hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea; and

  • Foxes, who draw from a wide variety of experiences and think the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea.

It turns out the foxes are far better at predicting the future than hedgehogs because of their array of mental models. See Philip E. Tetlock’s Superforecasting and Expert Political Judgement for more details.

This may be because human reasoning depends on mental models and our perception, imagination, and comprehension are all directly tied to the mental models we have.

It makes sense, if you don’t understand how something works, how can you reason into the future about it.

This is no different to how the outcome of a building is tied to an architect’s plans.

But unlike the architect’s plans your models don’t have to be perfect.

As statistician George Box said, all models are wrong but some are useful.

If a model works most of the time you’re good – unless of course the payoff for being wrong is death.

I think of mental models are representations of probability.

They are structured responses to the world and are abstractions of what is really happening.

Take supply and demand, if I raise the price of something I feel there is a high probability there will be lower demand for it.

But that doesn’t mean there will always be less demand. Nor does that mean the theory of supply and demand isn’t useful.

I hope this was worth your attention and gives you something to chew on for the week.

If you know anyone who may be interested, please share and encourage them to subscribe.

Before I go, here’s my weekly objective key result update:

  • 25 engaged subscribers out of 42 total subscribers; and

  • One post published on Sunday. ✅

As a reminder my objective key result is:

  • 50 engaged subscribers; and

  • One published post each Sunday by the end of 2018.

See you next Sunday. In the mean time, check out my reading list.