BOOK REVIEW: Mental models that could be moving you forward - or holding you back

Mental Models: 30 Tools to Master Logic and Productivity, by Kevin Wagonfoot

A model is an abstraction, a simplification of a more complex system. A map isn't exactly like the land it represents, but it can tell us valuable information about the area.

"The real beauty of understanding various models," the author explains, "is that they allow you to simplify and understand more complex systems and concepts."

The operative word is 'models', as the psychologist Maslow pointed out: If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to treat everything as a nail. The models in this book are helpful either because they can aid functioning, or because the can limit bad or simplistic choices.

Consider how people have developed an ingrained, but simplistic discriminating model, that leads them to avoid or marginalise those who look different or speak a different language. This model is used in place of deeper and more valuable models about who I wish to associate with, and who not.

The Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman described the way our minds work, according to the speed of dealing with input – his "System 1 and System 2". When System 1 runs into difficulty in making sense of a situation, it calls on System 2 to support more detailed and specific processing that may solve the problem of the moment.

Fast vs. slow

System 1 is fast, and System 2 slow. The problem with System 1 thinking is that because it is based on what is seen and that it tries to create a narrative, the results can be riddled with bias. 

Consider the problem below: A ball and bat cost $1.10. The bat is $1 more expensive that the ball. The answer of the fast System 1 is below. And is wrong.

System 1: Ball $0.10 + Bat $1.00 = $1.10, Bat $1.00 - Ball $0.10 = $0.90

System 2: Ball $0.05 + Bat $1.05 = $1.10, Bat $1.05 - Ball $0.05 = $1.00

Understanding the two decision-making systems is important because it can help us to see bias for what it is: quick intuitive thought, that is often based on limited or incorrect information or reasoning.

The 'confirmation bias' is another common, but problematic mental model. People who believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), for example, will keep close track of instances when they were 'thinking about Mom, and then the phone rang and it was her!'

They ignore the far more numerous times when either they were thinking about Mom and she didn't call, and when they weren't thinking about Mom and she did call.

When making decisions it's important to be aware of how we take information and force it to confirm our positions. A half hour watching CNN and then Fox News will illustrate how agilely we defend our positions.

Damaging models

A pervasive and damaging model is "attributing to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." As the author was about to merge onto the highway a car cut him off. I was enraged, and hooted and tailgated the car. "When I had a chance to pass, I pulled up alongside and I felt like an idiot. It was an extremely old woman who looked terrified!" When one is aware of this mental model it is easier (not easy!) to stay above the emotional response, until you know the other person's true intentions.

The 'ad hominem' model is Latin for 'to the man'. It is the practice of insulting an opponent personally, instead of arguing against their position. Margaret Thatcher said that she always cheers up immensely if an attack is ad hominem because, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left.

'Counterfactual thinking' can also explain why Olympic Bronze medalists are generally happier than those who win Silver. It has been shown that Silver medalists are generally upset at not having won Gold. Their counterfactual thoughts tend to be focused on "what if they had won". On the other hand, Bronze medalists are generally excited at just being on the podium!

Simply being aware of the negative consequences of counterfactual thought can divert or dispel emotions like guilt, blame, and regret. It can assist in knowing the difference between fixating on emotional events that cannot be changed, and those that can.

'Lateral Thinking' is not natural to most people's thinking. However, knowing useful lateral thinking techniques and models can be most useful in creating ideas and solutions for a problem.

A change of focus

Consider just a change of focus. If you changed to a different part of a problem, this could yield results that would not have been considered otherwise. Question: There is a basket with 6 eggs in it. Six people each take one egg. How can there still be one egg left in the basket? Answer: The last person took the basket with the egg in it.

Having a clear understanding of 'correlation' and 'causation' can be helpful in many contexts, and awareness of this distinction alone is helpful.

Correlation is a mutual relationship between two or more things: people who are taller generally weigh more. Height and weight are correlated. Of course, this isn't always true. Sometimes a tall person is extremely thin, or a short person is overweight.

Causation is a relationship of dependence between two or more things. For B to happen A has to happen first. The gun fired because the trigger was pulled.

The error occurs when these are confused. When ice cream consumption goes up, so do incidents of skin cancer. Ice cream doesn't cause skin cancer, they are correlated because they both happen in the summer. When it is hot, people eat ice cream, and people go into the sun more.

An important and useful economic concept is 'opportunity cost'. This idea is that once you spend your money on something, you can't spend it again on something else. In so many parts of our lives this understanding fails us. The next time you make a decision take into account what you are giving up when you decide to go with your choice.

Reading this light introduction to some useful mental models presents an opportunity cost that is worth small the amount of time it will take.

Readability          Light -+--- Serious

Insights                High --++- Low

Practical               High --+-- Low

Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation and is the author of 'Strategy that Works' and 'The Executive Update'. Views expressed are his own.