Mental Models (Part I)

by Ron Potter

Mental Models shape our thinking.  So much so that we can look at the same data or situation as someone else and reach very different conclusions because we each rely on different models.

Mental Models Impact on Emotional Quotient

In the Emotional Quotient blog from last week, one of the pillars is Self-Awareness.  If you’re not self-aware enough to know that you use a particular Mental Model then you end up arguing a point just because the other person is wrong, or stupid, or lacks the ability to see things reasonably.

Mental models are numerous.  I could easily list eighty or more just from the reading I have done. They include

  • General Thinking Concepts
  • Numeracy
  • Systems
  • Physical World
  • Biological World
  • Human Nature and Judgement
  • Microeconomics and Strategy, and
  • Military and War.

Each model will have an average of ten subsets so it can be a little overwhelming.  However, without learning a general outline of the various models, we assume that the model we use is the “correct” one.  Sometimes people assume that the model they use is the “only” one.

Because of the people, environment, and education that we grow up with, the model we use seems very natural to us and we’re often not even aware that our mind filters everything through that model.  Become aware that there are other models!  Understand how they shape thinking and judging.  You will become a more understanding person who develops empathy.  Another one of the Emotional Quotient categories.

General Thinking Concepts

For this blog, we’re going to focus on General Thinking Concepts.  The subset of principles for this mental model include:

  • The Map is Not the Territory
  • Circle of Competence
  • First Principles Thinking
  • Thought Experiment
  • Second-Order Thinking
  • Probabilistic Thinking
    • Inversion
    • Occam’s Razor
    • Hanlon’s Razor

The Map is Not the Territory

Maps are representations.  They are imperfect.  The first ocean explorers had maps that showed the next continent to the east of Europe was India.  Their maps were imperfect!  Perfect maps are so large and bulky, they no longer become useful to carry around, either mentally or physically.  They do point us in the right direction and give us an idea of where we’re headed but they do not help us when reality differs from the map or we need more detail.

Sometimes a map is simply a snapshot of a point in time.  It may no longer represent the current reality.  This is important because much of our mental models were formed in our childhood.  That world may no longer exist.  I remember as a child coming home only to find a group of my parent’s friends had “stopped by” and were now making sandwiches and getting something to drink from the refrigerator.  That world no longer exists.

Circle of Competence

Think of three circles.  The smallest inside the middle one.  The middle one inside the largest circle.  The Circle of Competence is easy to think of in this way.

  • Smallest Circle: What you know.
  • Middle Circle: What you think you know (but actually don’t know)
  • Largest Circle:  What you don’t know and you know you don’t know it.

The problem is that our mind tends to blur the boundary between the smallest circle (what you do know) and the middle circle (what you think you know but you don’t).

Believing there is only one mental model to understand the world is what blurs this boundary.  When your mind uses (or believes there is) only one mental model than when someone disagrees, it’s because they’re ignorant or stupid that causes that disagreement.  The thought may never occur to you that they’re simply working from a different mental model.

First Principle Thinking

The real issue here is separating facts from assumptions.  We often reach assumptions of the facts based on our mental models then treat the assumptions as facts.  First Principles is one of the best ways to unravel complicated problems.  By separating facts from assumptions, new assumptions can be reached based on the facts and can lead to great creativity.

Thought Experiment

Thought experiments are used heavily in philosophy and theoretical physics.  Einstein put forth many of his principles of the universe based on Thought Experiments.  He wasn’t actually there to observe his theory at work, it was a theory entirely within his head.  This opens up new approaches to inquiry and exploration.  What may seem impossible based on our mental model becomes a possibility in thought experimentation.

Second-Order Thinking

I might name this one unintended consequence.  In first-order thinking, it’s easy to see the consequences of our actions.  If I throw this rock at that window, I will see and hear it shatter.

Second-order thinking pushes us to think long-term in order to think through the consequences of our actions.  I believe this is why many of our government actions have so many unintended consequences.  The people putting these regulations in place are usually not thinking beyond the next election cycle.

Having public corporations report quarterly results instills much of the same behavior.

Make decisions based on the long-term.  It often takes a person with a different mental model to see potential consequences.

Probabilistic Thinking

In probabilistic thinking, the goal is to determine the likelihood of a specific outcome.  The accuracy of our decisions is improved if we can more accurately predict potential outcomes.

To Be Continued…

This blog has already become longer than most of the blogs I write.  And I believe our best learning will happen with the ways to improve Probabilistic Thinking.  I’ll leave you with this thought and then continue the Probabilistic Thinking solutions next week.

Thought for the Day

Realize that there are numerous mental models in the world and you have not cornered the market on right thinking by using a model and sticking with it.  You have simply proved that you’re a narrow-minded thinker.

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