We’re constantly interpreting the world around us each and every day to make sense of it all–frantically untangling untold raw information from our own experiences into sensible conclusions that we can make sense of to better understand the game of life. However, we’re getting this process wrong, far more times than we probably care to admit (See our Cognitive Bias Field Manual to identify these shortcomings)
To combat faulty thinking, we’re highly dependent on our ability to filter information through successful frameworks that we’ve picked up in the game. These frameworks are called Mental Models, and they’re tools that we can collect throughout our life to enhance our ability to reach accurate conclusions and execute sound plans.
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Can you give me an example of a Mental Model? Sure, let’s introduce you to the following Mental Model to begin with:
Fundamental Attribution Error
In psychology, there is a popular theory called the fundamental attribution error that explains how people commonly make an error when choosing the reason to explain another person’s behaviour.
For example, let’s say that you’re at a party and you witness a guy in the corner of the room who is antisocial. Without any more information than what we’ve gathered from a glance or two–we are more likely to assume that this guy is boring or shy (judging the person’s internal characteristics) rather than assuming the reason is due to situational circumstances (Perhaps he has a bad headache? Or maybe has just broken up with his girlfriend?)
In a nutshell–people are far more likely to assume someone’s behaviour is a result of someone’s character (Inner traits), rather than assume it could be a consequence of a situational reason.
So what, you say? Well, these conclusions of ours regularly influence our actions. If we’re regularly attributing the wrong reasons to human behaviour with little thought, we’re distorting the reality of what actually is, and that is something we should avoid for obvious reasons.
In turn, these predictable assumptions of ours are even manipulated by politicians, activists, advertisers and foreign nation states to serve particular agendas that may not have your best interests in mind.
So what can we do with this information? Firstly, perform your own due diligence on the subject and determine if this is a mental model worthy of your acquisition. If it’s not, dismiss and move on. If it is, great!
By integrating this particular Mental Model into our thinking (The Fundamental Attribution Error) we’re serving two functions:
- We’re now aware of our own potential to attribute the wrong reasons to another person’s behaviour.
- We’re now aware of someone else’s potential to attribute the wrong reasons to another person’s behaviour.
And just like that, with a shiny new tool in our cognitive arsenal, we’re better equipped to face the world than a few minutes ago.
What will I gain from continuing this article? I’ll be introducing you to further Mental Models that you can integrate into your own life, as well discussing my personal approach to the accumulation of mental models and how they’re used.
But firstly, an introduction to one’s ignorance
Your interpretations of the world will always fall short of describing what actually is. Quite a bold statement I’m making, I know–but I’m not quite sure enough people truly comprehend this.
Think of a map for a moment. A map will always fall short of the actual environment it’s attempting to portray. If any map were to represent its environment with 100% accuracy, it would have to be the size of the territory itself and shape shift in real-time to comprehend any new variables that arose—like a huge slab of rock falling into the sea for example.
One’s worldview shares similar parallels. Our worldview is a map in its own right, that is inherently flawed by design in its bold attempt to represent reality. The question is, how flawed is your map? To acknowledge one’s present worldview as an attempt to generalise material truth would be wise. We must embrace our ignorance and be open to alternative versions of truth that may prove to be more reliable than our own positions. The ego likes to think its got the map figured out—it’s foolish really. Such is the landscape of ignorance that truth seekers must painfully traverse to discern truths from falsehoods.
That world outlook of yours that exists within your mind is theoretically only accurate to a specific percentage of what actually is. And it is this inaccuracy in our worldview that makes for endless problems when we enter the open space of human social dynamics. One man’s reality differs from that of another—and we’re regularly at odds with one another in our respective attempts to navigate the game of life.
I have elaborated on this particular point in more depth here: Know Your Enemy: Ignorance and The Principle of Fallibility.
Why should I care about Mental Models?
We can’t entirely depend on personal experience and intuition to formulate an accurate worldview. One must embrace the flawed nature of human thinking when left unchecked. Critical thinking is the skill that demands a commitment to using reason, strong evidence and honest scepticism when forming one’s judgements.
A mental model serves as an explanation of how something works through a broader lens. It is a framework that you carry around in your mind to assist you in your interpretation of the world and your greater understanding of the relationship between things. Such tools will also serve us in all parts of our lives–Instead of limiting ourselves to the narrow areas of knowledge that we may have studied previously in academia.
Establishing your Mental Model collection
To ensure we’re building the clearest picture possible of the world around us, our mind needs a variety of different mental models to draw upon, to piece together the best representation of what is. The lack of sufficient perspectives available when assessing a problem is dangerous, as it forces us to make sense of what we’re looking at through a narrow view.
As the saying goes, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
The more sources you have at your disposal, the clearer your thinking becomes–It’s that simple.
But what kinds of sources are we looking at introducing to our cognitive toolbelt?
We’re looking to collect the rudimentary “101s” from across the primary disciplines of academia. Things like: The legitimacy of statistics. The fundamentals of human psychology to explain human behaviour. Useful concepts for market behaviour and economic theory. The laws of physics. The principles of biology to learn of our intrinsic wiring. Essentially, the general principles that underlie most of what’s going on in the world.
Such a grand endeavour is a lifelong project that calls upon you to find the most successful models in this game that have proven their validity. With time, as your collection grows, you’ll find that your ability to understand reality and predict her ways, becomes objectively easier–this ultimately increases our capability in producing better decisions, and helping those around us.
Through the glorious system that is the internet, one now has personal access to the best mental models that humankind has generated throughout history. There are thousands of these things, and it becomes a matter of research to conclude what models work best for you.
Favoured Mental Models of mine:
The Physical World
Entropy – This forms one of the great forces of our universe. A force so great, that it is fundamental to the way our world works, as it permeates nearly every endeavour we pursue. Entropy is the measure of disorder within a closed system. And it explains how disorder is always increasing within our universe. Within each of our lives, we’re always committing energy towards the development of our refuges of beneficial order–that ultimately grant us shelter from the chaos of nature. These orderly structures (Our homes) are categorised as ‘low’ in entropy (orderly). And you’re in a constant battle in life to maintain this low entropy state from the forces of disorder (Cleaning, Maintenance, Utilities etc) and this can be seen throughout the game of life. Where there are ‘low’ entropy states, you’ll find the forces of disorder attacking them. This is inevitable. That’s why sand castles disintegrate, weeds consume well-kept gardens, man-made structures crumble, mountains collapse, people age. It’s a good thing to factor into your thinking when you’re questioning the reasons why your ordered structures are encountering relentless sieges. It’s a fundamental aspect of the game. Embrace it.
Relativity – “If the earth is moving through space, how come I don’t notice?” Because, my dear Watson, you’re at the same constant velocity, moving with our planet. This is relativity, and its theory reveals that an observer cannot truly understand a system of which he himself is a part. Another example would be the inside of an aeroplane. Do you feel the movement? Not really and yet an outside observer on the ground can see the tremendous movement that is occurring. We accept that relativity will apply to many aspects of perspective within our world, including human social systems.
War & Strategy
The Commander’s View – In conflict, the commander’s idea of the battlefield is never the ‘reality’ of the battlefield. Leadership decisions are constantly made on the basis of incomplete intel and subjective interpretations of raw information. Operational decisions have to be formed on probability, and not on certainties. If a commander delays his intentions in order to test and validate his picture of the battlespace, it’s often too late—as the enemy may take the opportunity to seize the initiative.
Weaponisation of Information – Thanks to our dependence on the internet, and the adoption of social media by mass society, the manipulation of our perception of the world is taking place on an unprecedented scale by numerous corporate and nation state forces. These technologies have resulted in an elaborate new battlespace that aims to persuade and manipulate large population groups to meet the aims of external agents. Cognitive Security (COGSEC) forms the countermeasure to these increasingly savvy forces.
Asymmetric Warfare – The asymmetric warfare model explains a war between belligerents whose relative military power differs exceptionally. As a consequence of this variance, one side embraces their shortfalls and formulates unconventional tactics to achieve their victories. You’ll see the asymmetric model applied by insurgencies with limited resources. Unable to face their opponents head-on, asymmetric fighters must utilise alternative tactics, as seen via terrorism exploiting the psychological fears of population groups.
Human Nature & Judgement
Inversion – This is a technique to look at a particular problem from the opposite direction. A fascinatingly powerful tool because it enables us to comprehend obstacles that may not be obvious at first glance. What if the opposite was true? We must now ask ourselves. What if I focused on a different side of this situation? Instead of facing a problem head on, ask yourself how to not do it. You may be surprised by the results.
Confirmation bias – We’re not naturally impartial. We regularly turn a blind eye to details that contradict our own positions. Confirmation Bias confirms the human tendency to recall information that confirms one’s preexisting positions. The effect becomes stronger for deeply entrenched beliefs–meaning so much depends on the degree to which a person has to undo commitments made to others in order to reverse one’s beliefs.
Reflexivity – Due to the inherent limitations of human knowledge interpretation (As discussed above) reflexivity explains how the distorted views in our possession can directly influence the situations to which they relate to (false views of ours regularly leading to inappropriate actions.) In turn, these actions will typically form a feedback loop in which our distortion has led to an action, which will, in turn, lead to a distorted interpretation of that action and so forth. These feedback loops of thinking can be either negative or positive. A negative feedback process is self-correcting. It can go on forever and if the material world doesn’t reveal any significant changes, it may eventually lead to an equilibrium where a persons’ views will come to correspond to the actual state of affairs. On the other hand, a positive feedback process is self-reinforcing. It can’t possibly go on forever because eventually, the person’s views would become so far away from the objective reality that the participants would have to recognize them as unrealistic.
Dual Process Theory – A popular Psychological theory that explains how thoughts can arise in two different ways and how these thoughts can often run into conflict with one another. The two processes of human thinking consist of 1) An intrinsic, automatic, unconscious process and 2) An explicit, methodically controlled, conscious process. By understanding how our thoughts appear via these processes, we can grasp the internal power dynamic that ultimately pulls upon our everyday behaviour.
Normal Distribution (Bell Curve) – Central limit theorem establishes that, in most situations, when independent random variables are added, their properly normalized sum tends toward a normal distribution (informally a “bell curve”) Many things in life have a significant degree of stability. For instance, the average height of men in the UK is 177.0 cm. But how much do people tend to vary from this mean? Outliers tend to hit no more than 20% from this range (Due to gigantism or dwarfism) But the height of the British male, as a whole, would form a typically consistent distribution from this mean. Grasping the distributions of phenomena serves multiple functions. Firstly, it helps us to predict outcomes with far more effectiveness. Secondly, we can learn to identify the causes to the respective outliers (In the above example: Nutritional quality, health and genes) And finally it challenges us not to assume multiple outcomes derive from the normative range when we’re experiencing phenomena in the wild–outliers can always turn up in twos!
Fat-Tailed Processes – A fat tail is a situation in which a small number of observations form the basis for the largest effect. In finance, almost everything is fat tails–gigantic corporations that are responsible for most of the sales. In wealth, if you sample the top 1% of wealthy people you find the majority of the wealth. In a nutshell, fat tails visually represent the high probability of a relatively extreme outcome in statistical analysis. When looking at the data, we see fat tails represented as deadly conflicts, outbreaks of Infectious diseases, and areas of unpredictable human behaviour.
Law of large numbers – The law of large numbers is an intuitive model that informs us that the more times you observe an event, the more closely your overall result will ‘stick’ to an expected outcome. This law has commonly been misunderstood as a tool to ‘predict’ the outcome of an ‘independent’ event–which it doesn’t do. We can look at the game of Texas Hold Em’ to see how I use this law. Let’s assume that my knowledge of Texas Hold Em’ is on point and I’m a fairly good poker player as a result of my statistical discipline (I play hands due to the odds and not my emotions.) I take advantage of this knowledge by only playing people on a 1v1 basis (I assume that over the long run, a player who is fixed to manoeuvring via probability will see more wins than loses as he encounters undisciplined players along the way.) In my first game, I went all-in, when I realised I had an 80% chance of winning–and yet, I lost. From here, I then proceed to lose the following 3 games in a similar fashion. Would I be wise to change my strategy at this point? Of course I wouldn’t. This is a game of probability and the small samples that I have should be viewed with great scepticism. The law of large numbers allows me to continue my approach with confidence, as it states that the more games that I bring into my dataset, the more the results will align with the expected outcome.
The Biological World
The Red Queen Effect (Coevolutionary Arms Race) – An evolutionary hypothesis which proposes that humans must constantly adapt, evolve, and proliferate not merely to gain an advantage, but also simply to survive, while pitted against ever-opposing organisms in an ever-changing environment who are looking to climb the ladder. This arms race derived from a statement that the Red Queen made to Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass in her explanation of the nature of Looking-Glass Land: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Tendency to Minimise Energy Output (Physical & Mental) – As a consequence of the laws of thermodynamics and the continuous competition for resources and energy, nature punishes the biological organisms that are wasteful in their energy outputs. In knowing this, we can identify the energy conservation behaviours within human behaviour and how that directly affects human conduct as a result.
Hierarchical Instincts – Most people are aware of the hierarchical structures of the animal kingdom, and often believe they’re outside of such structures within the human realm. They’d be wrong for doing so. Human social structures form clear hierarchical systems that directly contribute to social phenomena. For example: Women assessing the hierarchical dominance structures of men to select a partner with influential, dominant traits (Such as their economic status)
My personal Mental Model strategy
So I’ve provided you with some of my favoured models, but how does one begin to integrate them successfully into their life? Before a Mental Model becomes intuitive, (and it will eventually) it must undergo, consistent applications within a person’s life, before it becomes instinctual. And the best way I’ve found success here, (Which I believe honours the Tendency to Minimise Energy Output model for its simplicity) is as follows:
Download a cross-platform note keeping app like Evernote. Once installed and setup, create yourself a new notebook by the name of Mental Models. From here, it’s time to introduce our favoured systems of thinking.
Get online and begin your search for effective thinking models. When you’ve found one, It’s time to conduct your research! Watch a Youtube video or two if you don’t get a concept at first. Break it down and understand how it rudimentary works. As a general rule, if you can’t explain a model clearly to someone who doesn’t know anything about it, you don’t understand it yet. Insert clear descriptions of your models into your notebook so that you can always understand a model moving forward.
Throughout my day, whether I’m on the toilet, on the train, or on a park bench, I’ll periodically pull out my notes and give them a brief look. Little reminders here and there that keep them fresh in the memory. With time, they slowly become introduced into one’s intuitive systems and you’ll find yourself applying these models with little to no conscious thought.
And that gentlemen, sums up my introduction to Mental Models. It was long and it got a little complicated at times, I know. But I hope that you’ve found this article effective in its intended message. Mental Models have the monumental capability of changing your life for the better and I implore you to take full advantage of this approach and tweak it to your own satisfaction. Best of luck!