Thinking In Mental Models

I’ve always had a really hard time taking “thinking about thinking” seriously. The first thing that comes to mind is a vision of myself posing, unironically, as Rodin’s The Thinker. Then it’s a mix of old white college professors and these guys [2] [3] [4]. There’s an entire subreddit called r/iamverysmart dedicated to making fun of those kinds of people. Because they suck. But they’re also not totally wrong?

So I have a new goal: to read and learn smart ideas from great thinkers without turning into a complete pisskid. And since the best way to make sure you understand something is to explain it to someone else, I’m going to write blog posts about them. If you want to be that “someone else” - feel free to join me in learning some cool shit!

I discovered the blog Farnam Street when it was linked to in Vicki Boykis’s great blog post that I’ll probably reference a lot: Fix the internet by writing good stuff and being nice to people. They’re an independent site funded mainly by membership subscriptions that give you access to exclusive content. In other words, they make money by writing such good free content that you want to pay for more of it. That’s the kind of place with articles worth reading.

The whole site is dedicated to helping readers “expand their knowledge and improve their thinking.” The first time I arrived and saw that in the header I rolled my eyes and clicked away. But a few days later I thought “if Vicki liked it so much, I should give it shot” so I went back and poked around a little bit more.

They’re really big on the theories and writing of Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett of Berkshire Hathaway – in particular Munger’s method thinking in “mental models.” Mental Models are something I’ve heard about a few times and never really bothered to dig into, but a Mental Model is actually pretty straightforward: it’s a simple “framework” for understanding why something happened the way it did. They can be very often explained in one sentence or less. One famous example is “Occam’s razor” which (basically) says that given two possible explanations for an event, the simplest one is probably better. So if you’re a detective investigating a burned down house and you’re trying to decide between a candle falling over or a lunatic with a flamethrower, Occam’s razor would tell you to go with the candle.

Now obviously Occam’s razor doesn’t explain everything, and if you try and use it to solve all your problems you’re going to come to a lot of oversimplified and probably wrong conclusions. The idea of the Mental Model approach is to learn and understand many different models and run through them like a checklist (they call it a “latticework” for some reason) whenever you’re searching for an answer. So if you understand not only Occam’s razor, but Hanlon’s razor (Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness) and apply them both to the fallen candle vs murderous arsonist issue, you’ll have two different mental models in support of the candle theory. The more your mental models support one idea, the more likely it is to be correct.

In order to be a good, well-rounded thinker, he suggests you learn mental models from all kinds of disciplines - from Critical Mass in Physics to Natural Selection in Biology and Supply and Demand from Economics. Even though you’re probably not working on a physics or biology or economics problem, there’s still principles from those ideas that can apply.

I like this concept for two reasons:
1) It’s really logical and algorithmic, which is how I tend to think about things.
2) It has a really simple hook for improving – the more mental models you know, the better you’ll be able to understand things. If you want to understand things better, learn more mental models.

If it sounds interesting to you too, here’s a few more things I’ve read to get to the point where I understand it well enough to blog about:

Mental Models: How Intelligent People Make Better Decisions - Farnam Street’s introduction to the concept of a “latticework of mental models”
Charlie Munger: Adding Mental Models to Your Mind’s Toolbox - A deeper explanation of how multiple models can interact to improve your understanding
The Psychology of Human Misjudgment by Charles T. Munger - A compiled version of multiple similar talks Charlie Munger gave on this concept. This is long and super dense, but worth the slog
Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful - A thorough list of mental models along with a brief explanation and links to learn about more of each