5 Critical Mental Models to Add to Your Cognitive Repertoire
There is a philosophical school of thought called rationalism.
Rationalists adhere to the notion that reason is the chief source and test of knowledge. For reason is a powerful tool that can allow the individual to investigate the world and interpret it in a rational way.
However, reason and the way it is fostered remains a somewhat ill-defined concept. A big part of rationalism suggests that humans can rely on sensory experience and intuition to form assumptions and views about various phenomena.
Rationalists postulate that the human mind is not a tabula rasa (blank state), but rather already employed with some innate rationality that allows us to operate in an efficacious way.
I find this idea quite plausible and what it tries to communicate quite beguiling.
Our ability to intuitively choose the most pertinent course of action seems to be the most imperative item in our cognitive toolbox and one that we should pay special attention to.
When I first encountered the rationalist ideology, I couldn’t help but associate it with a contemporary framework that is very prevalent in the personal development community: The theory of mental models.
The origin of the term mental model is unknown but people speculate that it was first coined by psychologist Kenneth Craik in his 1943 book “The Nature of Explanation.”
However, it wasn’t until notorious investor Charlie Munger helped it gain steam when he elaborated on the significance of mental models in his 1994 speech to the U of South California Business School, titled “A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business.”
In it, he attempts to articulate how the art of worldly wisdom can work as an invaluable tool when it comes to stock picking and general investment strategies.
The way he explains worldly wisdom is as follows:
What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. 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.
And then he goes on to define the idea of mental models:
What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine. It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models. And the models have to come from multiple disciplines—because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.
In a nutshell, a mental model is a way to enhance your cognitive apparatus in order to make more intelligent and strategic decisions.
When we discuss mental models, an important point to consider is that mental models form something like a neural latticework. That is a mental construction that can allow ideas to interlace and merge in order to offer the best solution when complex problems emerge.
You can think of a mental model as a mind hack that utilizes memory and intuition in a very special and effective way.
The reason Charlie Munger pays so close attention to the idea of mental models and promotes it to the degree of evangelism is that it has served him well throughout his life.
Famous investors will often assert that they aren’t geniuses and that they don’t specialize in one discipline, but rather that they are great generalists.
A great generalist is a person capable of forming a canonical interpretation of reality by capitalizing on systemic and holistic thinking.
This is the kind of thinking that allows us to make sagacious decisions and investigate facts that can’t be seen with “the naked eye.”
This is the kind of thinking that can be honed with the study of mental models.
Enter the world of mental models
The world is an extremely complicated place. Trying to make sense of it, more often than not, leads to confusion and the acceptance of our own limitations.
That is not necessarily a bad thing.
Understanding your limitations can make you intellectually humble.
In that state, you are more open to alternative approaches and more prone to the adoption of more creative methodologies.
Charlie Munger famously said:
“And so just as a man working with a tool has to know its limitations, a man working with his cognitive apparatus has to know its limitations.”
Your biggest weapon is self-awareness and that includes understanding every constituent of your selfhood. Strengths and weaknesses. Especially weaknesses. Especially if you are young and your identity is still crude.
I know this feeling.
Ten years ago, when I was in my early 20s, my main concern was how to escape the incompetence associated with my being young and inexperienced.
Ten years later, I am here, writing this article, having moved from crudeness to refinement, and attempting to bequeath the worldly wisdom I managed to attain.
Mental models have played a huge part in that process. Their involvement in one’s mindset is invaluable and their gravity can’t be understated.
The mental models are many. Some are considered common knowledge and some quite sophisticated and specific. The vastness of the latticework they produce makes it intimidating for one to even decide to deal with them in the first place.
This article is an attempt from my side to make this process easier and offer a primer to the five mental models I consider most interesting but also most universal.
I hope that after grasping the concept and its main constituents, you will take the time and effort required to explore them even further and eventually internalize them.
The why model
There is this great book by British/American author Simon Sinek called “Start with Why.” Its premise is that leaders who want to inspire action need to make sure that their message is communicated in a precise and well-articulated manner.
As such, when they move forward, the fundamental element of their message should be the “why.”
In essence, the power of why lies in the fact that it can evoke a series of questions that will allow a person to bring more awareness to their paradigm and eventually reinforce their sense of inner purpose.
The why is the predecessor of justification. With the right justification, our reasoning becomes crystallized. We no longer operate in an abstract and aimless fashion. We are ready to take action.
The power of why is so potent and its applicability so universal, that it can eventually metamorphose into a mental model.
People have been using the power of why since the ancient times to inspire action taking and to energize crowds.
In fact, the “why model” is one of the most pertinent tools used in sales in order to enrapture potential customers. When customers understand their needs, they are more prone to eventually invest the money in solutions that can help them satisfy those needs.
But in order to reach that precious stage of understanding, a salesman needs to employ the why model.
By asking the right questions, and maneuvering through the psychological reasons that will ignite a sale, the why model acts as the vessel that will lead to the promise land.
Moreover, the why model is also a great tool when it comes to determining personal meaning. For instance, psychotherapists usually try to help people escape their inner struggles by attempting to raise awareness via the why model.
The client can enter the discovery plain, go back in time, face challenging events and associate them with current behavioral patterns.
This association gives rise to why and eventually the person can work towards the how.
While trying to explain the significance of the why method, Charlie Munger suggests:
“Just as you think better if you array knowledge on a bunch of models that are basically answers to the question, why, why, why, if you always tell people why, they’ll understand it better, they’ll consider it more important, and they’ll be more likely to comply. Even if they don’t understand your reason, they’ll be more likely to comply.”
I am confident that most of you have encountered the name Pavlov and his dog more than once in your life. It is one of these terms that comes up in psychology related discussions and deep down you know you have no clue why it was brought up in the first place.
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov was a Russian psychologist known for his work on classical conditioning.
Classical conditioning is a buzzword that refers to the procedure during which a biological stimulus like food, when paired with a neutral stimulus like a bell can form a learning process. During this process, the subject, in Pavlov’s case a dog, when it makes the association, it manages to elicit the same response during the neutral stimulus, as it would during the biological stimulus.
Pavlov’s dog, when it encountered food, started to salivate. After the association took place, it started to salivate just by listening to the sound of the bell.
The significance of this discovery is monumental. Not just because it helped spawn more humane approaches to dog training, but also because we realized that it is an enormously powerful psychological force in the daily life of all of us.
Pavlovian Association is used consciously and unconsciously by various agents in the domain of marketing and general influence strategy. When Coca-Cola, for instance, decides that it wants to be associated with great events like the Olympics, and employ alluring images in their ads, you can’t help but associate Coca Cola with something beautiful and enjoyable.
When Trump decided to re-utilize the slogan “Make America Great Again,” he seeks to create an association with past glories and through guileful romanticism to evoke feelings of nostalgia for the good old days.
The power of Pavlovian Association lies in this subtle effect. Most of the work is done at a subconscious level and our attempt to escape it is usually fruitless.
I consider Pavlovian Association a great mental model for both self-awareness and influence purposes.
Making sense of when we act or react based on mere association is a great way to fathom concealed aspects of our personality.
Furthermore, making sense of when other people act or react based on mere association can work wonders in our effort to influence them.
Bias from over-influence by authority
I will discuss some of the most important biases in a separate article, but I wanted to include bias from over-influence by authority in this list because I consider it an imperative mental model.
Authority is a very interesting notion and its appeal has been prevalent in various forms throughout history. During the 20th century, however, because of different events that convulsed the foundations of humankind, the idea of authority has been approached by many angles.
The atrocities that took place in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, helped people realize in a way that authoritarian regimes are not the best choice for any state or social group.
Postmodernist philosophers anatomized the idea of authority and concluded that every human relationship is a power game and a struggle to assert authority over others.
In my opinion, our overall approach towards authority can never be fully functional. However, the eminent rise in awareness around the topic does portend a tidal shift towards its proper evaluation.
Bias from over-influence by authority is fostered from a young age and as long as the individual pledges allegiance to authoritarian figures, the bias will remain. Authority creates security, but this security is nothing more than a substitute of emotional attachment, which is predicated on the inability of the individual to cultivate self-ownership.
Bias by authority is not necessarily a bad thing, but it clearly can instigate malevolent events if individuals don’t recognize its effect on their decision-making.
As a contrarian, I am not here to suggest only politically correct approaches to daunting issues. I understand that concepts like authority constitute a gray area in our mental repertoire. Most probably we will never be able to escape its omnipresence.
This is the reason I present it as a mental model. Becoming aware of its ubiquitous nature can offer a way out of it, but also a way into it whenever the circumstance demands it.
Let’s just address the elephant in the room before we discuss more about entropy. Entropy is a term thrown around by people and the truth is that nobody really understands its precise meaning. That is because entropy can be used in various disciplines and for various reasons.
There is entropy in thermodynamics, entropy in information theory, entropy in cosmology and entropy in statistical mechanics. The word entropy (from Greek entropia “a turning toward”) was invented by German Physicist Rudolf Clausius in 1865 in his attempt to measure the level of disorder within a system. Clausius was referring to a thermodynamic system, but since then the word has been popularized in order to explain the change in randomness in any system.
Essentially, when entropy is high, randomness is high within a system and vice versa. In colloquial language, when people discuss entropy, they generally attempt to paint a picture of our chaotic world.
The realm of cosmos as it is interpreted by the human mind is a mish-mash of information that needs to be processed. The more complexity we bring to the table, especially with the evolution of technology, the more we increase entropy.
Our attempt to control this situation on a macro level is frivolous. Entropy will keep increasing over time and our ability to deal with this increase becomes a bizarre and far-fetched dream.
The Stoics have observed this phenomenon hundreds of years ago and their philosophy was proposed as a strong antidote to the conundrums that it entails.
Focusing on things you can control and ignoring the rest is the most compelling argument in our attempt to control entropy, at least on a micro level.
Steven Pinker has famously said:
“The ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order.”
This mental model becomes more and more vital as we age and we realize that our survival and flourishing is located on the nexus between discipline, conscientiousness, and planning.
Dr. Jordan Peterson keeps propagating the “clean up your room” assertion because this seemingly insignificant habit can yield tremendous results in our struggle to even slightly affect the effect of entropy in our life.
A suggested “entropian” mindset follows a sequence like this one:
Embrace entropy as a mental model. Clean up your room. Clean up your house. Adopt orderly habits. Offer to your community. Become a more conscious citizen.
The choice of the last mental model constituted a bit of a challenge for me. There are a plethora of mental models that could be included here, but I wanted to be as strategic and as practical as possible.
I decided to go with inversion for two reasons:
- Thinking backwards is oftentimes more helpful in deconstructing a problem than thinking forwards.
- Pondering the ultimate consequences of a specific course of action can eventually make you more grounded and calm.
Let’s try and dissect the essence of these two ideas.
1. Thinking backwards is oftentimes more helpful in deconstructing a problem than thinking forwards.
The simplest way to understand this sentence is to think that, usually, instead of aiming towards abstract happiness, it is better to ensure that we will minimize misery.
Example: You have a small business or a lean startup and you want to increase your revenue by 50% within the second year of operation. You plan and make projections and try to apply an aggressive strategy to meet your goal. New entrepreneurs, because they get carried away by their ambition and unrealistic expectations of their idea, frequently miss their goals and end up hopeless and frustrated.
What you could do instead is to focus on small actions that can ensure that you won’t get bankrupt. These actions add a level of security to your plan and help you capitalize on this security in order to gradually make bolder decisions.
2. Pondering the ultimate consequences of a specific course of action can eventually make you more grounded and calm.
I mentioned in my anti-motivation manifesto that what I admire the most about Elon Musk is his pragmatism. Most people get star-struck by his boldness and audacity, but few really recognize that the substrate that fosters boldness and audacity is pragmatism.
When you accept the chances of your success, even if those chances are 10%, you position yourself in a more grounded and serene plane.
Subsequently, when you try to carefully identify the parameters that may increase the chances of success and reduce the chances of failure, your ability to deal with them becomes more confident.
I oftentimes get very stressed because I overestimate my capacity to deal with complexity and multitasking. I soothe myself with meditation and by reminding myself that the worst thing that will happen is to end my endeavor and start a new one.
I hope that this article worked as a great primer to mental models and what they represent. There are many more mental models to be covered and discovered and I seriously hold the belief that an evolved mind needs to familiarize himself with as many as possible.
Mental models are closely linked to habits and ways to develop a well-organized personal system. If you are unsure where to start, “30 Challenges – 30 Days – Zero Excuses” ebook provides a selection of habits and practices that can prove extremely valuable in that respect.
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You can also find the video essay version of this article here:
Featured Image: Brain Diagram Art Print by Erin Greenough. You can find the print here.
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