Have you ever wondered what sets brilliant minds apart from the rest? Many of the most intelligent people in the world take a creative approach to problem-solving and decision-making. They use thought processes to better make sense of the world around them and to arrive at rational choices and behaviors. These unique thinking strategies are called mental models.
The term “mental model” encompasses many different thinking strategies, but is essentially a way of organizing and making sense of information in your brain. Mental models most often help you understand systems and categorize the information your brain is processing into a simplified understanding.
However, not all mental models result in productivity. Certain mental models may hinder clear, unbiased thinking and problem-solving. In these cases, being able to identify when you’re using a mental model that prevents you from thinking clearly can help you be more effective.
Sometimes mental models are used against you, like when a logical fallacy is used during an argument. In these situations, knowledge of mental models can help you identify a manipulative argument and better equip you to refute the claim.
While many mental models require learning and training, some occur naturally and you may not even realize you’re using them. Other mental models can help you make sense of complex systems and must be consciously practiced in order to become internalized.
Below is a list of 18 common mental models, along with videos to provide a deeper understanding. Consider whether you already utilize them, and if they help or hinder your ability to make smart decisions and effective arguments.
Crowdsourcing consists of leveraging the ideas of others by enlisting the help of a large group of people. This can be in the form of soliciting ideas from the public via votes or surveys, or even running an idea contest.
The concept of opportunity cost comes from economics. When choosing between a number of options, the opportunity cost is what you miss out on when you choose one option over the others.
Trusting your gut is actually a form of a mental model. When you trust your intuition, your brain quickly determines what decision “feels best” based on your past experiences. But following your intuition isn’t always the best way to make decisions, as explained in the video above.
Using sunk costs as the reasoning for our behavior is a common logical fallacy. Sunk costs are the time or money already spent that cannot be recovered no matter what action you take in the future. Many people consider sunk costs when making decisions.
Loss aversion refers to the concept that people are much more likely to avoid losses than they are to pursue gains. For example, people react more strongly to losing $10 than to finding $10.
People are much more likely to seek out information that confirms their already-held beliefs. Confirmation bias occurs when we are more likely to interpret data or facts to confirm what we already believe is true. We also avoid seeking out information that contradicts our preconceptions.
Commitment and Consistency Bias
The commitment and consistency bias mental model is our tendency to continue to behave a certain way once we’ve committed to it. Humans are reluctant to change their behavior. That’s how both good and bad habits are created.
Anecdotes are personal accounts of one’s experience, often with a product or service. You often hear the phrase “anecdotal evidence” to describe evidence that something works based on other’s success stories.
A straw man argument is an attempt to refute someone’s point by arguing about a totally different point. The argument diverts attention away from the original topic.
If you’ve ever heard the phrase “correlation is not causation,” you’ve considered the mental model of questionable cause. This is an attempt to explain phenomena by falsely connecting two incidents as cause and effect.
Appeal to Emotion
An appeal to emotion is an attempt to manipulate someone’s emotions in order to win an argument. This strategy is used most often when the arguer does not have facts to back up their point.
Focus on High-Leverage Activities
Focusing on the tasks that bring the greatest results is a more efficient way to work. High-leverage activities are those that bring the most reward. This is often stated using the 80/20 rule: 80% of results come from 20% of your efforts.
Parkinson’s Law is another simple productivity adage: work expands to fill the time available for its completion. If you have a task that can be completed in one hour, but you allot three hours, the task will take you three hours.
Occam’s Razor reminds us that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. To illustrate this point, you’ll often hear this example: “If you hear hoofbeats, don’t go looking for zebras.”
Diversification is the idea that spreading risk across a number of areas makes your investments safer. Think of the phrase “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” This concept is most often used in financial investing and business, though it can apply to many situations in life.
Illusion of Control
When people have an illusion of control, it means they overestimate their ability to control situations. This mental model can influence people to gamble or believe in the paranormal. It’s also related to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where unskilled people believe they are good at something because they lack the self-awareness necessary to recognize their inability. (In other words, you don’t know what you don’t know.)
Status Quo Bias
People have a preference for the familiar. When someone has status quo bias, they consider the current situation to be the baseline and any deviation from that is a loss.
Humans make sense of the world by creating social networks with others who live and think like them. Tribalism occurs when people are loyal to this social network above all else. It’s often used to talk about political or religious affiliation.
These are just some of the many mental models humans use to make sense of the world. Some help us see more clearly, while others prevent us from making the best decisions. Having knowledge about mental models will help you identify when you’re using them, and whether or not they’re helping you make smart choices.