Mental models

The world is a complex dynamic system. We are unable to sense it all and even if we did, we would not be able to comprehend it. We have evolved to comprehend what we have to in order to pass our genes on. We notice threats, we conserve energy by shortcutting thinking. These mental heuristics and cognitive biases have served us well. In today’s world, they continue to do so. But nothing in life is free. They come at a cost. We cannot know reality and our brain wetware is systemically flawed.  

Our attempts to understand reality are of necessity simplifications. While they are wrong, they are useful and the best we can do. Being aware of what our “mental model” or conceptual framework is, helps us to refine and improve them. It can also help us develop different models and potentially, models which encapsulate different aspects of our understanding and shine a different light on reality. We may even be abel to run multiple models over the same situation to refine our understanding:

Your chances of understanding what’s really going on are much better if you look at the world through a multidisciplinary lens.
Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference


The first is the value of understanding the main principles of a wide range of disciplines. These include law, science, maths, statistics, politics, economics, psychology, psychiatry and so on. Scientific principles and human behaviour combine in numerous ways. You don’t need to be an expert, but there is immense value in understanding the cornerstones. In all disciplines a few big ideas carry most of the freight. The important thing is not to ignore any of the main disciplines, because life is one big bundle of interconnectedness
Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference

The more fundamental the truth, the greater the range of times and locations it is likely to hold true. Being aware of these fundamental truths will help you enhance your mental model. Having a mental model is not without its limitations:

If the model of the problem is inappropriate, the mistakes of the model cannot be easily revealed within the model itself.
John Kay, Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly


We use observation to sharpen a concept and a concept to sharpen observation.
Daniel Ford, A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror

Looking at the world shapes our mental model, just as our mental model shapes how we see and experience the world. Our model in helping us see, also risks blinding us. Our wetware’s failings increase this “blindness” risk:

Life is context-dependent. Scientists and statisticians understand this. They couch their conclusions in context-specific terms. Problems arise when people don’t leave room for ambiguity. Dogmatic behaviour is especially worrying. Absolutism is dangerous. Very few “answers” are right in all circumstances. Even criminal judicial systems seek proof beyond a reasonable doubt, not absolute certainty…. absence blindness. Humans are reasonably adept at examining and judging what is in front of them. We are excellent at comparing alternatives yet terrible at considering what’s missing. Presented with a choice between A, B, C and D, we get very busy on the relative merits of each rather than suggesting a context-appropriate E. Out of sight, out of mind…. What’s missing is also context-dependent. And if, like me, your head is beginning to hurt a little right now, that’s because trying to consider both context relevance and what in that context we might be missing, does not come naturally. Understanding comes with consideration of both relevance and relevant absence.
Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference

 One way to try and see outside the “box” of the apparent options is to always try and look at the problem from the “big picture” perspective as well as the “micro” detailed one:


What to do with too much information is the great riddle of our time. My solution is to look at the facts through two lenses simultaneously, both through a microscope, choosing details that illuminate life in those aspects that touch people most closely, and through a telescope, surveying large problems from a great distance. I hope I say enough to show that humans have many more options before them than they currently believe.
Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History Of Humanity


This can involve a total change in perspective. It is easy to get “caught in the weeds” to focus on solving each little step along the path to the solution. To forget to keep checking the end goal and how best to obtain the desired outcome.

If we search for better questions, ultimately to lead to a better answer, we should be prepared to act on that answer even if it contradicts our view of the world, in fact especially if it contradicts our world view.
Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference


Our ego and emotional attachments to our work can make it hard to take a better path. It can be hard in specific projects, or life more generally:

Both politics and economics have been powerless in the face of the obstinacy of entrenched mentalities. Mentalities cannot be changed by decree, because they are based on memories, which are almost impossible to kill. But it is possible to expand one’s memories by expanding one’s horizons, and when that happens, there is less chance that one will go on playing the same old tunes for ever and repeating the same mistakes.
Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History Of Humanity

 We must strive to break existing patterns, habits and mental models. To reformulate them into better, more applicable engines of understanding and action:

We must “shatter the rigid conceptual pattern” that we have established in our minds: “the process of Structure, Unstructure, and Restructure ... is repeated endlessly in moving to higher and broader levels of elaboration
Daniel Ford, A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror

Without this constant reappraisal, we will not consistently follow optimal paths:

The fundamental, unavoidable and all-pervasive presence of uncertainty is the starting point. It leads to the requirement to learn, to develop adequate mental models, and to continually assess the adequacy of these models as the basis of survival
Daniel Ford, A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror


The uncertainty is always with us. As we gain more information and understanding our uncertainties change. We may if we think about it opt for a different path:

We should always be prepared to re-frame the problem that is being explored. If we head off in the wrong direction, speeding up isn’t going to help us no matter how energetic and enthusiastic we are
Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference


While multiple mental models, questioning and being willing to change help us with projects and our lives, they also have a macro impact. In aggregate there is an emergent phenomena which affects the direction of society as a whole:

When, in the past, people have not known what they wanted, when they have lost their sense of direction, and everything appeared to be falling apart, they have generally found relief by changing the focus of their vision, switching their attention. What once seemed all-important is suddenly hardly noticed any more. Political ideals thus collapse abruptly and are replaced by personal concerns, materialism succeeds idealism, and from time to time religion returns. I want to show how priorities are changing today, and what sort of spectacles are needed to observe them. In the course of history, humans have repeatedly changed the spectacles through which they have looked at the world and themselves.
Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History Of Humanity


Our mental model is the prism of our mind through which we view the world. It shapes what we see, just as a glass prism shapes how we see light. We cannot know reality. We can hope to have a better grasp of it than those we are competing with. That will give us a competitive advantage.

We all have slightly different conceptual frameworks or mental models and they are all a mix of what is useful and what is not.  This means that we can improve our understanding by incorporating other peoples. This is one of the reasons why having a diverse team working on problems can be better than having one rigid perspective.

Try and have multiple different mental models, made up of components which can be mixed and matched. Use them as different spectacles or filters to view reality or the problems you are working on. While even this will not let you see reality as it is, it may give you a better understanding than those you are competing with. It may help you see what they do not:

What we make of other people, and what we see in the mirror when we look at ourselves, depends on what we know of the world, what we believe to be possible, what memories we have, and whether our loyalties are to the past, the present or the future. Nothing influences our ability to cope with the difficulties of existence so much as the context in which we view them; the more contexts we can choose between, the less do the difficulties appear to be inevitable and insurmountable. The fact that the world has become fuller than ever of complexity of every kind may suggest at first that it is harder to find a way out of our dilemmas, but in reality the more complexities, the more crevices there are through which we can crawl. I am searching for the gaps people have not spotted, for the clues they have missed.
Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History Of Humanity


While doing this, always remember:

Nothing occurs in isolation. Always consider the context and recognise that it: (a) is different for everyone, and (b) changes over time. Don’t be dogmatic.
Laurence Endersen, Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference