Apr 252007

What are mental models?

Mental Models is a concept I will be referring to a lot in this blog. A mental model is essentially your understanding of how certain things are. You make a mental representation of something and you can use that representation (or model) to do a bunch of important stuff, including understanding, problem-solving, judging, decision-making, interaction, etc.

Just as a small-scale model of a plane gives you an understanding of how real planes work, we use mental models to understand how the world works. For example, we have a mental model of falling objects in our physical world, which factors in gravity and air resistance. So, if I was to ask you what would happen if I throw a ball up, you will check with your model and say that it will go up for a little bit and then come back down. More precisely: first decelerating and then accelerating at 9.8 m/s^2, but you don’t need to know that. 😛

However, what if your model was not totally accurate? Imagine two scenarios for a moment:

1. A brick and feather are both dropped from the top of a roof. Which will hit the ground first?

2. Another brick and feather are both dropped from the top of a roof, but in a vacuum. Which will hit the ground first?

Come up with an answer (guess if you’d like) for both, but do come up with an answer. Its a lot more fun when you play along.

For the first question, the answer is obvious: The brick will hit the ground first. But what about the second question? Its actually a trick question; they will both hit the ground at the same time. If you got the second question wrong, then don’t worry about it. This doesn’t mean that you’re busted or anything, it simply means that your mental model does not account for the specific case of things being dropped in a vacuum.

You see, when you answered the questions, you checked with your mental model of things falling in the world, and some of you may have even imagined both things falling in your mind’s eye. And you’ve built this model through years of experience and watching things fall. Your model says that heavier things fall faster than lighter things and you made the assumption that that was because of gravity. Actually, heavier things fall faster is because of air resistance. When you take away the air, you get just gravity acting on the feather and the brick and so they both fall at the same rate. You can see a hammer and feather experiment being done in a vacuum–on the moon, actually–here. Now if anyone asks you if two different-weighted items would fall at the same rate in a vacuum, you know the answer! 😛

Similarly, you have a mental model of what a chair looks like, and its flexible enough to account for different kinds of chairs. With backs, without backs, with huge backs, with four legs, ten legs, one leg and even no “leg”. Your understanding of everything around you is a mental model.

Why is this important?

Like I said earlier, we all use mental models to understand the world around us. So, if we want to understand the world better, we have essentially two options:

1. Improve our existing mental models. By learning that things fall at the same speed in the vacuum, you’ve just improved your mental model of things falling and made it more nuanced.

2. Construct more mental models. In the real world, things become more complicated and you need more models to accurately understand the world.

Why is that important? You see, mental models are kind of like maps of a place. If you have a map with lots of mistakes in it, then it’ll be really hard for you to get where you want to go. In the same way, mental models are crucial for understanding the world and taking action and making decisions based on that understanding. Improving and expanding your mental models is like getting an even better map, so you can get to where you want easier, faster and more efficiently.

Its lots of fun to improve your mental models. I know that sounds like it requires studying or learning, and if you’ve been turned off to learning through school or whatever, don’t worry! I will try to make it as easy as possible to learn more about this fascinating place we live in called the world. I will talk about a man who is able to tell you with over 90% accuracy whether a marriage will last or not, does that sound interesting? If that’s not your style, then how about how to make more money? I’m sure many people will be interested in that. How about living longer? You can gain mental models of the situations to accomplish any of those goals, and I will try my best to make it fun and interesting. 🙂

Here’s another benefit: if you are currently in school, then start to think about your classes as ways to help you to construct more mental models and understand the world better. If you’re learning anything, then start to think about how you’re trying to improve or expand your mental models in order for you to do something you couldn’t before.

Where do mental models come from?

We get mental models from different sources depending on the kind of mental model. For example, certain models we get from our own experience, such as that fire is hot, or that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. We also get mental models from direct teaching and coaching. For example, your parents probably taught you that you need to give money in order to buy stuff. In school, you learned models of how the world works in chemistry class, in physics, biology, or perhaps about how businesses work.

Other times, we just build up models from inputs from our environment. For example, think of a typical rich person. How do you imagine him or her? Do you imagine them wearing expensive clothes, driving expensive cars and eating expensive food? That’s the image of a rich person you probably picked up from the media. Except, 80% of millionaires are first generation rich. That is, they made their own fortunes, and they did it, surprisingly, by being smart with their money. Many millionaires are, in fact, very frugal and live in average houses and drive average cars. I’m suggesting that your mental model is inaccurate, here, and I will talk more about this later. In the meanwhile, if you’re interested, you can grab The Millionaire Next Door to learn more surprising things about millionaires.

How can you improve or expand your mental models?

To improve existing mental models, you have to find the inaccuracies (not mistakes, because they’re not) in your models and fix them. But how do you even know that there’s an inaccuracy there? You can either find out about more accurate mental models and contrast them with yours. So, you might read The Millionaire Next Door and improve your mental model of how millionaires act and think.

Alternatively, you could find situations in which your mental model is not accurate and try to figure out why. Look for things that don’t make sense to you. Look for that feeling of confusion, because it is a guide to asking more questions.

There are many sources out there to help you to build new mental models. From traditional schooling, to the internet, to books and audiotapes, to DVDs, to educational TV shows, to this site. When you learn, you are creating a new mental model. I hope that this concept of mental models (you now have a mental model about mental models!) will help you to learn more effectively.

I saved the best for last: Multiple Mental Models!

Science is devoted to creating models of the world. Different disciplines are devoted to answering different questions with a specific focus. The hard science such as physics, chemsitry and biology are devoted to answering questions in very physical terms. The theory of relativity is a model of how the universe works and its more accurate than previous Newton’s and others’ models. Similarly, the theory of evolution through natural selection is more accurate than alternatives.

The soft sciences, such as economics, politics, psychology are devoted to different focii, too. For example, economics wants to understand the interactions of people in the field of exchange of goods and services. Politics is about the interactions of people in general, and psychology has a focus on individuals and understanding them.

You see, when you study a field you get its mental model, and its almost like a lens to help you see the world clearer. And if you have many different mental models, you can combine them to gain an even deeper understanding of the world. There are many problems which require you to have a multi-disciplinary approach. For example, what is the economic impact of policy changes in a country? How about the role of sociological change brought around by the internet in business, such as the proliferation of word-of-mouth marketting on an unprecendented scale? Why do people cheat? For that matter, why do people fall in love? Why is it so easy to become fat? How can you become rich? How can you live longer? How can you be happy? What is the nature of happiness? If you own a business or are a marketer, how can you market most effectively? I bet some knowledge of social psychology will be useful there.

Mental models are like Voltron, the more you have, the more powerful you are. 😛

I first learned about mental models from Charlie Munger. He said that after you’ve built multiple models, anything less would be like cutting your hands off. And its true. Can you imagine not being able to read? Its similar to that. After a little bit of time this stuff because some so useful and so integral that you can’t imagine having anything less. Mental models are a valuable mental concept and they’re a powerful way to think about information and knowledge, and I hope you will put the mental model of mental models to good use. 🙂

Main Points:

  • Mental models are internal representations of the world around us.
  • We use mental models all the time and for many things, including understanding, taking action, making decisions and achieving results, so its worth our while to try to get more accurate mental models.
  • Some of our mental models come from our personal experience, others from outside sources, such as teachers, parents, friends or the media.
  • Improving and constructing mental models are two ways to gain a better understanding of the world.
  • We can make new models and improve our existing ones by learning from many different sources.
  • Having many different mental models is very useful.
  • Mental models are fun!

Next Actions:

  • Make a list of ten mental models you hold. Make it mentally if you’d like, but I highly recommend this to get you familiarized with the idea of mental models.
  • Next time you’re faced with a problem, try to understand which mental models you are using to solve it.
  • Next time you start reading something to learn, ask yourself which model that you hold and of what you would like to create, expand on, or improve. Are you trying to improve your model of success and how to achieve it? Perhaps you want to improve your model of what happiness means to you and how to become happier.
  • Have fun!

Author’s Note: In this early phase of this website, I am looking for any feedback that you can offer me, on the writing, the site, the ideas, etc. I appreciate any criticisms, comments and compliments. So take a moment and let me know what you think in the comments. 🙂

  9 Responses to “Mental Models!?”

  1. […] and, increasingly, on the Interwebs. Other benefits include improved vocabulary, more ideas, more mental models, better ability to express yourself, etc. Lots of great stuff. __________________ Yay, another […]

  2. […] Influence (big recommendation here) and the like. Assimilate more nad more new ideas and build more mental models. Another avenue of study you might be interested in is learning more about how we function. Most […]

  3. Good start, RT. I look forward to learning more about mental modes.

    One criticism, more of a personal peeve, I am not big into smileys-though I have used them in forums. I always hope that the writing of whatever I’m reading is strong enough to convey the meaning without some orange thing winking at me or some blue guy frowning.

    Trust your writing, it is quite good.

  4. I believe it is strong enough to convey it, however, I don’t want it to sound too academic or dry, so I throw in some smilies. I’ll think more about this subject later and make a decision about it.

    Thank you for your compliments. 🙂 <--heh

  5. Interesting article. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

  6. Ahh, I was waiting for your blog RT. Good work!

    I like your casual style and I don’t think the smilies do your writing a disservice at all. Despite the length of this entry it was still an easy read, and a good, in-depth summary of the concept.

  7. […] Hahaha. I do believe that people try to justify the importance of mathematics in the wrong way, by suggesting that you’ll need to know math for the future. The truth of the matter is (IMO) that the skills of problem-solving and mathematical thinking that you develop as you learn math is what is truly important. I recall my Economics professor in first year telling us that if you’ve taken or are taking calculus, you’ll do better in economics–not because there’s much actual math in economics (the math is like grade 9-11 math at most), but simply cause of the way people who’ve taken it think. Just another mental model. […]

  8. […] and Shoot ‘em Up signal a new stage of evolution in the genre of action films. Having more mental models is better, so you might learn something from this, too, even if you’re not into film […]

  9. […] Funny you should mention that, here’s another example of gravity being against intuition: Mental Models!? | Mind-Manual […]

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