How to Use Mental Models to Become an Astonishingly Good Thinker

Enduring the difficulties life throws at us is heavily influenced by the way we think. If we think better, we will live better because we will make fewer mistakes. Technically, every walking mortal can go from bad to capable in terms of improving the quality of his thinking. But to radically reduce bad decisions, you need to be more than capable. You need to be a great thinker. Here mental models enter.

On a sunny day. You look up. You see the balloon-like clouds slowly floating across the blue sky. If you look closely. If you stare at these white dirigibles for just a bit longer. You no longer see clouds. You probably see faces. Animals. Or even conceptualize the shape as a toy you had when you were 5-year-old.

No. You are not crazy. There is a name for that. It’s called pareidolia.

This is a phenomenon that comes from our need to organize seemingly random information into patterns.

Mental models are the same thing. But besides making sense of what is purely visual. They help us understand how things work. How the world works.

Even more than that. The mental models residing in our heads are internal representations of external reality.

They are like lenses in our heads that filter what we see and experience, which eventually shapes what we think and how we behave.

Plainly, all that stands in the way of making a bad decision versus a good decision is the set of mental models you have in your head.

Knowing the best mental models, and how to use them. Plus, understanding the most common mistakes we make when we think. Should allow you to reduce errors in your judgment and design a better thinking process.

In this article, I’m going to explain how mental models work so you can identify patterns in your head that lead you to distasteful decisions. From there, help you build a latticework of mental models that will aid you in the journey called life.

All of this, so you can think better to act better.

What Are Mental Models?

Jay Wright Forrester, a pioneering American computer engineer, defined mental models the following way:1

“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.” Jay Wright Forrester

Or in other words, what we carry as an image about the world is often not what actually happens in the world.

Mental models are mental shortcuts the brain creates to help us make sense of what happens so we can act appropriately.

Why this is needed?

The brain is constantly trying to reduce energy. So it stacks similar things (events, cues, etc.) into easily accessible thinking patterns. Then, when similar situations to what we have experienced in the past are observed, it picks and applies the most appropriate mental model for the situation.

This allows the brain to make quick conclusions, which in turn ensures that the body has enough energy to function.

Think about it, if our ancestors had to think deeply every time they saw a lion in the savanna, we would not be here now.

That’s why, mental models exist. When we see a lion on the open grounds. We don’t need to think. The visual cue sends signals to our legs which triggers an impressively fast average speed that is worthy of a gold medal.

However, as I vividly described above when I mentioned that we sometimes see angels or castles when we look at clouds. Mental models can also be dangerous enemies stuck in our heads.

Instead of helping us, they can disturb reality in a way that is hurting us.

That’s why mental models are of great importance to be studied, understood, and applied with caution.

Why Are Mental Models Important To Understand?

In our heads, we carry models of how the world works.

Scientists label mental models as, “cognitive representations of external reality.”

Let’s return to the clouds for a moment to visualize this a bit better.

You see a cloud in the sky. And while your eyes see a cushy shape. Your brain turns this shape into something meaningful – an animal, or the face of the friendly superhero, Spider-Men, for example.

But is the cloud actually trying to imitate the shape of an animal, or is just your mind playing tricks?

Of course, it’s the latter.

If you ask another person. He’ll either see just a cloud or imagine something completely different.

Why?

Because he has a different set of mental models in his head.

And while looking at clouds and imagining superheroes is not dangerous.

What do you think will happen if you misinterpret an outside event while investing in stocks?

You lose money.

What do you think will happen if you misinterpret an email from a colleague?

It might lead to a pointless argument or not doing your job right.

But there is more…

A common thing we all do is be a victim of our biases.2

For example, by looking at people who made it in a particular field, we convince ourselves that we’ll make it, too.

Also known as the survivorship bias. Brands are constantly using this to persuade us to buy courses, products, Notion templates (like we don’t have enough already), etc.

Consider this for a moment… When you go to a website that sells Ebook Readers, for example. The page showcase only the positive reviews. All the benefits of using the device. Of course, nothing negative is mentioned. That’s why we start to believe that we’ll also improve our reading experience if we purchase this fancy tool.

But is it really that helpful?

It might be. But that’s not guaranteed.

As it is not guaranteed that starting a business will result in a successful business. Starting a business and a successful business are two quite different things.

Of course, we start one hoping to eventually become successful but hope, alone, won’t make it profitable.

Understanding that what we think. What we form in our heads is not reality can save you from embarrassing dialogue, making financially unstable decisions, and all kinds of other inadequate conclusions.

How Mental Models Are Formed?

Mental models are formed in our heads as we experience life. The more we expose ourselves to different events, the more mental models we are able to form.

However, as knowledge fades over time. We only keep the ones that are frequently used.

Still, this doesn’t stop us from drawing conclusions even if we spot unfamiliar things.

Here’s an example: When we are young and we see something for the first time. We will draw conclusions from what is familiar to describe the unfamiliar.

That’s why children will label tigers, pumas, cougars, leopards simply as cats. They don’t know that these are different – they still don’t have the extra lenses. But relying on what they know, they make conclusions to make sense of the world.

These are innocent mistakes.

But again, when we grow up. We can’t afford to make such misjudgments. We need to form a latticework of mental models that will help us both avoid errors and consistently make good decisions.

How Mental Models Unlock Your Thinking

Ok, what do we know so far?

We know that mental models are the way we make sense of reality. But we also know that they can be flawed.

Since you can’t go to the store and purchase a floppy disk containing the best thinking types used by all the astonishingly rich people of our time and insert it into your ordinary brain – like in the movie The Matrix when Neo learned jiu-jitsu in 10 minutes.

You need to do the hard work of creating a set of thinking concepts in your head while also considering the fact that some of the current ways you think are probably dangerous and need revision.

The question then becomes: “How can I ensure that what I see, and therefore believe, is not incorrect? And, how I can acquire a nice set of mental models that will help me make better decisions and also avoid misinterpretation?”

Charlie Munger, the person who popularized the use of multi-disciplinary mental models says the following:3

“As I said at the U.S.C. Business School, what you need is a latticework of mental models in your head. And you hang your actual experience and your vicarious experience (that you get from reading and so forth) on this latticework of powerful models. And, with that system, things gradually get to fit together in a way that enhances cognition. And you need the models – not just from one or two disciplines, but from all the important disciplines. You need the best 100 or so models from microeconomics, physiology, psychology particularly, elementary mathematics, hard science and engineering [and so on].” Charlie Munger

So, you can’t expect to improve your thinking when you study one area. You need to study all the important areas to bump up the IQ of your brain.

Shane Parrish, the person who founded the blog Farnam Street – the go-to place for mental models. Explains this as creating a mental toolbox for your brain. To visualize this better. I’m going to use the most cited quote about mental models, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Obviously, you can’t bang everything with a hammer. We constantly encounter events that require a bit more grace.

mental-models-hammer-nail

So, how can you acquire a nice set of ways to think?

Extremely easy to say, but crazily hard to practice – you learn them.

Creating a Latticework of Mental Models

Creating-a-Latticework-of-Mental-Models

Mental models are kind of like keyboard shortcuts.

At the right time, you press a combo of keys and you perform a task faster.

Can you do a task without the shortcut? Yes. Is it more efficient? No.

But there is more.

As people who are obsessed with finding new keyword combinations. Knowing more keys helps you besides navigating around dozens of browsers. It clears the fog around what is possible.

Knowing more helps you see how more things are possible.

It removes the brick wall around your average brain.

Or in other words, expert developers see meaning in code while other people see gibberish.

How to learn more ways to think faster and better?

Two ways:

  1. Experience more.
  2. Learn more.

The first one doesn’t guarantee that you will improve your thinking. Plus, it’s a slower process.

If you work the same job for 20 years, this doesn’t mean that you will master it. Usually, your performance will start to regress if you do the same things without pushing yourself outside your comfort zone.

The solution then, is to learn more techniques. Master what other people have already figured out.

Instead of throwing 100 mental models at you and hoping you will catch some. For the past couple of months, I was busy discovering and packaging the most important thinking concepts into categories.

The below links, will help you think and behave better in some of the most important areas of life:

  • Mental Models For Problem-Solving: Good problem-solving is good thinking. These problem-solving mental models will help you handle incoming disasters gracefully.
  • Mental Models in Psychology: The field of psychology offers something unique. A way to understand ourselves so we can prevent self-destruction. Get familiar with these 7 psychology thinking concepts to better understand how you operate.
  • Mental Models for Learning: Learning is more than just reading textbooks. If you want to master a subject, you can do it in less time if you have the right set of learning mental models.
  • Mental Models in Business: Starting a business doesn’t guarantee that you will create a successful one. Learn these mental models for entrepreneurs to ensure your company will endure.
  • Mental Models for Decision-Making: Upgrade your decision-making process with the help of these methods to choose the best option. The 7 decision-making toolkits will allow you to be a bit more certain about outcomes.
  • Mental Models in Systems Thinking: Thinking in systems is something you absolutely need in your life. The methods I explore in this post about mental tools in systems thinking will help you see loops everywhere and take advantage of them.

How to Use Mental Models

Above I mentioned that mental models are like tools inside a toolbox. The difference is that instead of objects, you have thinking concepts.

Personally, I prefer lenses instead of tools. Lenses that sit somewhere in our brain and distort reality based on the set of lenses we have.

Here’s a more vivid example:

Since we experience life by observing what happens to us. When you see something, feel something. That event is immediately analyzed by our mental models. They are our first line of defense. And based on our thinking concept. We behave in a certain way.

how-mental-models-work
When you have a limited set of mental models, you will act always the same way regardless of the situation.

From there, since you can’t change what happens to you. You will probably conclude that you should change your behavior. But that’s not quite right.

Mental models filter the incoming information and assign tasks to the body – what the body should do. So, what you really need is to change your mental models, add new ones, and consider all possible scenarios based on the different thinking concepts. And more importantly, give yourself more time to think.

Not only because waiting will calm you down and prevent you from making an emotional decision instead of a rational one. But also because you will have more time to see the problem from different lenses and decide which behavior will lead to the most appropriate outcome.

How-to-Use-Mental-Models
When you have a wide set of mental tools. You can think about the different consequences when you choose something. Then, pick the best way to act depending on the situation.

When your portfolio of thinking concepts is bigger, you will have the ability to see different outcomes when different lenses are applied. Thus, make the best decision.

Here’s a “real-life” example:

A friend introduces you to a new way to make money. A company that offers website-building services and uses AI to generate content. Given that the content is generated automatically. You do nothing. You simply pay a monthly fee and wait for results.

The process is presented as seamless. You go through an initial setup and then just see how articles are added and money is printed. The reviews on the website seem like everybody is making a good amount of money. So, you decide to join.

In this simple example, we can identify three mental patterns that convince us that we should join the platform:

  • Conformity: Since the program was recommended by a friend, you are more likely to believe it.
  • Survivorship bias: The positive reviews convince us that success is guaranteed. However, we see only the people who made it. We don’t know how many people tried and failed.
  • Hyperbolic discounting: We are designed to want immediate rewards over rewards that come later. It’s one thing to start a website and earn money after a year – what actually happens. It’s quite another to start a website and start earning today – what the website we are observing is trying to convince us.

If we think about it, however. And if we expand our set of lenses. We can spot errors in the service recommended by the friend:

  • Incentive: What is the real incentive of the person? He can be sharing an affiliate link. Or, he can have a track record of a person who is always looking for quick-rich schemes.
  • The map is not the territory: All websites that sell something present their services are super easy to use. However, maps are not reality. That’s why, when we chew on it, we will find out that we can’t expect a site that offers an easy way to make money to actually be easy.
  • Second-order thinking: When we consider the consequences of our decision. We will probably find a couple of facts that will save us the agony of signing up for this imaginary service: Google doesn’t like computer-generated income; Sites that offer easy money never deliver.

So, here’s an easy framework that you can follow when you have to make a decision:

How to use mental models:

  • Pause. Don’t react immediately.
  • Note down your initial decision.
  • Gather additional information if needed.
  • Observe the situation using different mental models.
  • Challenge your assumptions.
  • Try to estimate the likelihood of the different options.
  • Imagine the worst that can happen.

One extra thing to be aware of is that you are your biggest enemy.

Since the whole process happens in your head – there is no one to give you feedback. It’s of great importance to observe the situation objectively. If possible, ask someone for advice. This other person will surely give you a new way to think about the situation because his set of lenses is different.

How to Build Your Own Mental Models

There are plenty of books on mental models. Quite a few blog posts that talk about them. And passionate online discussion about them, too.

You might think that all the mental models are already invented and documented. That’s not the case.

You can create your own that best fit your conditions.

Like you can create shortcuts on your keyboard. You can also create your own thinking tools.

How to Create a Mental Model

Here’s what you can do:

  • Observe your life: Think about what type of decisions you are regularly facing. How do you usually respond? Why?
  • Observe the life of others: Given the above. See how others respond in similar situations. What do they do differently? How do they act? And more importantly, how do they think? Since mental models are ways to think, questioning people to understand how they think when they face problems will give you important insights.
  • Pause, act, revise: After the above two, you will have a better idea of how to respond to a particular situation. Once we have a new framework. The first thing we need to do is to pause – this prevents us from acting like we normally do. Then, act based on our new mental model. Finally, revise our thinking concept and make adjustments along the way.

Some Closing Thoughts

I see a lot of people talking about mental models but do little with them.

It’s not that we have a problem with access to the best mental models. We have a problem with adopting them.

When we read about mental models we say, “Oh, that’s good stuff!” But when we actually need to make a decision. We do what we normally do.

Our brain is cemented to our old beliefs and behavior.

The solution?

Increase the time you need to make a decision. Invite slow thinking (start with practicing slow reading and conducting a beliefs audit) and improve your fast thinking.

You need to prevent your initial statement to be your actual statement. Give yourself some time to invite the lenses – mental models – you have adopted while browsing online in your working memory.

Always think about the side effects.

And, as Peter Bevelin writes in Seeking Wisdom, “One way to reduce unintended consequences is to stop focusing on isolated factors and instead consider how our actions affect the whole system.”

All of the above, I hope, will aid you in your quest to improve your thinking. Because improving your thinking is the first step towards improving all the areas in our lives.

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Footnotes:

  1. This part I got from the Wikipedia article on mental models.
  2. Cognitive biases are what our brain is inclined to do. Often deceiving and not to be trusted. Here’s a nice list of cognitive biases.
  3. From the book Poor Charlie’s Almanack but I’ve discovered this paragraph first in the book Seeking Wisdom.
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