Mental Models: A Primer

Life is a prediction game. We take actions that we think will bring us what we want now or in the future. Does it work? Sometimes – but that’s the nature of prediction games. You don’t know if it works until after you try.

If you zoom out a bit, you’ll see that almost everything you do on a daily basis relies on predictable phenomenon. These are the easy ones. The sun rises in the morning. Your bed is the same height it was last night. Your bedroom door opens when you turn the knob. We couldn’t function in the world if these things didn’t hold true.

And then there are items that are (currently) unpredictable: whether it is going to rain six weeks from now, what the stock market will be six months from now, or when someone will meet their “true love”. Not that this stops people from trying to predict these things, it’s just that most people accept that the predictions aren’t very good.

There is a space in the middle that is predictable, but only if you have the right tools. What weight would cause a newly built bridge to break? I have no idea, but architects with the right tools know precisely when that would happen.

The generic name for these kinds of tools are “Mental Models”. They are a popular concept in strategic thinking and self improvement circles, and are basically what they sound like – “mental” as in used to think through scenarios and “model” as an assumption of how something works. They have 2 primary purposes:

  1. To create a mental shortcut (“oh, this is like that”) that allows you to think through challenges and strategies faster
  2. To improve the predictability of outcomes

All mental models meet the first criteria. The second piece you need to judge for yourself: how useful is it at predicting the future and helping you get what you want?

A quick example from engineering is the warning light. The “warning light” mental model is the idea to include an indicator of a potential problem rather than waiting for something to break. A familiar example is a gas tank warning light on a car that tells you when you need gas, but with plenty left to get to a gas station.

That probably seems kind of obvious. The real power of mental models is not understanding them, but applying them. They are most valuable when applied to new and different situations.

Let’s stick with engineering. For anyone who has ever put together a piece of equipment, there are often lots of pieces bolted together. How do you know when the bolt gets loose? Typically because the equipment starts to wobble, or you find a nut on the floor. That’s probably ok if it’s your dining room chair, but on large industrial equipment, it can be quite dangerous. 

So, the question is, how do you add a warning light to a bolt? Not an easy question (if you want a quick mental challenge, see if you can think of a way). But it turns out, someone figured out a way. As an engineer by training, I thought this was a really cool solution – see for yourself

So that’s the idea. Mental models can be both general (how the economy works) and specific (how your boss reacts to bad news), and you already have a number of them that you use regularly.

As another example, I previously wrote a post on cognitive biases which are a whole set of mental models that apply to human behavior. 

My next few posts will explore some of my favorite mental models. Do you have a favorite? I’d love to hear about them if you do.

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