mental models – a (long) primer

resource: list of mental models – Spreadsheet of Mental Models – this will form the backbone of future posts

purpose of this post: provide resources to understand the utility, use, and breadth of mental models  


What are they?

Explanation #1:  A mental model is just a concept you can use to help try to explain things. There are tens of thousands of mental models, and every discipline has their own set that you can learn through coursework, mentorship, or first-hand experience. Gabriel Weinberg

Explanation #2: It’s the big, basic ideas of all the truly fundamental academic disciplines. The stuff you should have learned in the “101” course of each major subject but probably didn’t. These are the true general principles that underlie most of what’s going on in the world.

These are the winning ideas. For all of the “bestselling” crap that is touted as the new thing each year, there is almost certainly a bigger, more fundamental, and more broadly applicable underlying idea that we already knew about! The “new idea” is thus an application of old ideas, packaged into a new format.

Yet we tend to spend the majority of time keeping up with the “new” at the expense of learning the “old”! This is truly nuts.

The mental-models approach inverts the process to the way it should be: learning the Big Stuff deeply and then using that powerful database every single day. Farnam Street

Explanation #3: What are mental models? A mental model is an explanation of how something works. The phrase “mental model” is an overarching term for any sort of concept, framework, or worldview that you carry around in your mind.

Mental models help you understand life…Mental models also guide your perception and behavior. They are the thinking tools that you use to understand life, make decisions, and solve problems.  James Clear

Why use them?

Explanation #1: Every human can assimilate only so much information through their senses and has only so much memory and processing power. Humans must make decisions constantly. Charlie Munger’s belief is that by learning and thinking using the big models which have been developed by the very best minds, you can become “worldly wise.” Tren Griffin

Explanation #2: Charlie Munger is very focused on acquiring a deep understanding of these models so they can help him better understand the world. He believes that it is through the application of models in a varied range of settings in life that genuine learning takes place. Mistakes, folly and foibles are an inevitable part of this process. Tren Griffin

Explanation #3: Munger believes that by applying a lattice of models from disciplines like behavioral economics an investor can discover decision-making errors. Perfection is not possible to achieve, but following a better decision making process is possible. Focusing on having a sound decision making process rather than outcomes in any given case is wise. In the long term, it is a better process that will generate the better overall result. Tren Griffin

Explanation #4: To use worldly wisdom properly you must be prepared to be a contrarian. Being a contrarian will inevitably sometimes make you unpopular or lonely.  Accepting this solitary state of affairs at times is essential since it is mathematically provable that you cannot outperform the crowd if you are the crowd. Tren Griffin

Explanation #5: If we are prioritize learning, we should focus on things that change slowly.

The models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control – at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers – is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much…

And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints – that’s a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass – that comes out of physics – is a very powerful model.

Farnam Street

How to add them to your repertoire and use them?

Explanation #1: To actually be useful, however, you have to apply them in the right context at the right time. And for that to happen naturally, you have to know them well and practice using them…When you have a particular problem in front of you, you can go down [your] list, and see if any of the models could possibly apply. Gabriel Weinberg

Explanation #2: The overarching goal is to build a powerful “tree” of the mind with strong and deep roots, a massive trunk, and lots of sturdy branches. We use this tree to hang the “leaves” of experience we acquire, directly and vicariously, throughout our lifetimes: the scenarios, decisions, problems, and solutions arising in any human life. Farnam Street

Explanation #3: And remember: Building your latticework is a lifelong project. Stick with it, and you’ll find that your ability to understand reality, make consistently good decisions, and help those you love will always be improving. Farnam Street

Explanation #4: The process of accumulating mental models is somewhat like improving your vision. Each eye can see something on its own. But if you cover one of them, you lose part of the scene. It’s impossible to see the full picture when you’re only looking through one eye.

Similarly, mental models provide an internal picture of how the world works. We should continuously upgrade and improve the quality of this picture. This means reading widely from good books, studying the fundamentals of seemingly unrelated fields, and learning from people with wildly different life experiences.The mind’s eye needs a variety of mental models to piece together a complete picture of how the world works. The more sources you have to draw upon, the clearer your thinking becomes. As the philosopher Alain de Botton notes, “The chief enemy of good decisions is a lack of sufficient perspectives on a problem.” James Clear

How are they limited?

Explanation #1: Even the best models of the world are imperfect. This insight is important to remember if we want to learn how to make decisions and take action on a daily basis. James Clear

Explanation #2: The theory of mental models, however, is not a paragon. It is radically incomplete; and it is likely to have problems and deficiencies. Proponents of rule theories have accused it of every conceivable shortcoming from blatant falsehood to untestability. It postulates that human reasoners can in principle see the force of counterexamples, and indeed people are able to construct them — a competence that is beyond the power of formal rule theories to explain. The model theory may well be overturned by counterexamples predicted by a superior theory. In which case, it will at least have had the virtue of accounting for its own demise. Princeton



lists of mental models

explanations of mental models