What Are Mental Models?
While not explicitly stated, the following writing by George Soros summarizes what I believe are the need and what of mental models. “The complexity of the world in which we live exceeds our capacity to comprehend it. Confronted by a reality of extreme complexity, we are obliged to resort to various methods of simplification: generalizations, dichotomies, metaphors, decision rules, and moral precepts, just to mention a few.” Put simply, the complexity of reality exceeds our capacity to comprehend it, thus we use mental models to simplify reality. Thus, by definition, a mental model is something that allows us to simplify reality. To be useful, however, not only do mental models have to be simplifications of reality, but they have to closely map to reality….but how close?
A mental model that says the world is flat meets the above criterion of a mental model, but, as we now know, it doesn’t map to reality. Of course, saying the Earth is round also doesn’t perfectly map to reality; however, it is more accurate. Achieving 100% accuracy of reality is impossible and achieving 99.999% accuracy is, as of yet, only possible in the physical sciences (more on this later). This brings to mind an interesting question: to what degree of accuracy is required for a mental model to be useful? In determining what level of accuracy I need, I think through the following: the downside of my mental model being wrong and the upside of my mental model being right. To the merchant, who only has aspirations in his small town, the upside is little and the downside is little of having a mental model that the world is flat. To the scientist who has staked his career on having an opinion on this matter, the upside and downside is much more, thus it would make sense for him to figure out a way to get a more accurate representation.
Let me pause and summarize: The world is too complex to fully comprehend. Mental models allow us to simplify reality and, therefore, interact with reality. No mental model is 100.000% accurate. Accuracy of a mental model falls on a probability scale of 0.001% to 99.999% (throw in an infinite amount of zeros and an infinite amount of nines in there, respectively). The level of accuracy required for a mental model to be useful is dependent on the downside and upside associated with using that mental model. That upside and downside will be unique to every individual, thus the level of accuracy needed will be unique to every individual.
If the level of necessary accuracy of every mental model is related to each individual’s personal upside / downside, then is explaining any mental model useful? Yes, I believe it is still helpful, caveated with as long as the explained mental model points out where the fog remains. Given that mumbo jumbo, (I had to read it a few times to make sure I even followed the logic…certainly point out if/where it is wrong) my goal will to be explain my mental models and (to the extent I know my knowledge gaps…you don’t know what you don’t know) point out where my fogginess remains. It is then up to you to determine if incorporating the mental model as-is is sufficient for your upside/downside potential or if it requires further digging.
A couple caveats: You don’t know how accurate your model is. You don’t perfectly know your potential upside and downside. You don’t know what you don’t know. Protect against this by being intellectually flexible (it’s OK to be wrong – reward yourself when you admit being wrong) and intellectually curios.
What are MY useful Mental Models?
(please read “What are Mental Models” to understand the emphasis on “MY” and why I include useful)
Unfortunately, nothing can be 100% accurate / verified. Also, in the Soros writing, “According to Popper, scientific laws are hypothetical in character; they cannot be verified, but they can be falsified by empirical testing… One failed test is sufficient to falsify a theory, but no amount of confirming instances is sufficient to verify it.” However, while nothing can be 100% verified, there is a spectrum of accuracy that I believe roughly follows academic disciplines. When I am thinking through mental models, I categorize them in these broad buckets and following subcategories. This provides a rough understanding around the level of accuracy of a mental model I am thinking through. (Physical sciences are generally more accurate than social sciences with social sciences generally being more accurate than humanities)
Is this an all-encompassing list? Not even close. Models will be added and they may be subtracted. The below provides an educational framework that will hopefully allow me (and you) to understand how the world works. My goal is to build out a database of essays around these models that I can refer back to. Most of what I have listed I have read about and have some knowledge and thoughts on. The next step is to transcribe those thoughts and continue learning new models.
A few notes:
- There is a unity to science that isn’t appreciated and I don’t think explored enough. As you traverse from the physical sciences to the humanities they are effectively all linked and become more and more complex. This complexity creates the opportunities for more errors and is why I have grouped them in the aforementioned categories. However, just know that when I am exploring group think or sunk costs there will be much more that could be explored that isn’t feasible to do so in an essay. To fully appreciate the increased complexity I will quote a book description (yes…a book description of a book that hasn’t been released at the time of this writing). From Robert Sapolsky’s “Behave”: the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. What goes on in a person’s brain a second before the behavior happens? Then he pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell triggers the nervous system to produce that behavior? And then, what hormones act hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli which trigger the nervous system? By now, he has increased our field of vision so that we are thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and endocrinology in trying to explain what happened. Sapolsky keeps going–next to what features of the environment affected that person’s brain, and then back to the childhood of the individual, and then to their genetic makeup. Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than that one individual. How culture has shaped that individual’s group, what ecological factors helped shape that culture, and on and on, back to evolutionary factors thousands and even millions of years old.”
- Most of these models are “Google-able” but some such as “myths and stories” won’t be immediately understood. In that particular case I am referring to Yuval Harari’s Sapiens book.
- In some cases you will see models appear in two categories, that is intentional and helps provide additional context on its source and development
- I will prove to be woefully inadequate in describing quantum physics (and most of the physical sciences), but I do think there are broad principles contained within that field that are useful in day to day decision making. In those cases, I will be exploring less of the technical side and more of the takeaways.