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In this episode of the Warrior Mind Podcast I’m going to discuss mental models and how they help with focus, especially when we’re multitasking or in a chaotic situation, like Quantas flight 32 back in November 2010.
Mental models are psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations. They were first postulated by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce, who postulated (1896) that reasoning is a process by which a human
The Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik (1943) proposed a similar idea; he believed that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation. Like pictures in Wittgenstein’s (1922) “picture” theory of the meaning of language, mental models have a structure that corresponds to the structure of what they represent. They are accordingly akin to architects’ models of buildings, to molecular biologists’ models of complex molecules, and to physicists’ diagrams of particle interactions.
The Way We Reason
The theory of mental models rests on simple principles, and it extends in a natural way to inferring probabilities, to decision making, and to recursive reasoning about other people’s reasoning. We can summarize the theory in terms of its principal predictions, which have all been corroborated experimentally. According to the model theory, everyday reasoning depends on the simulation of events in mental models (e.g., Johnson-Laird, 2006). The principal assumptions of the theory are:
- Each model represents a possibility. Its structure corresponds to the structure of the world, but it has symbols for negation, probability, believability, and so on. Models that are kinematic or dynamic unfold in time to represent sequences of events.
- Models are iconic insofar as possible, that is, their parts and relations correspond to those of the situations that they represent. They underlie visual images, but they also represent abstractions, and so they can represent the extensions of all sorts of relations. They can also be supplemented by symbolic elements to represent, for example, negation.
- Models explain deduction, induction, and explanation. In a valid deduction, the conclusion holds for all models of the premises. In an induction, knowledge eliminates models of possibilities, and so the conclusion goes beyond the information given. In an abduction, knowledge introduces new concepts in order to yield an explanation.
- The theory gives a ‘dual process’ account of reasoning. System 1 constructs initial models of premises and is restricted in computational power, i.e., it cannot carry out recursive inferences. System 2 can follow up the consequences of consequences recursively, and therefore search for counterexamples, where a counterexample is a model of the premises in which the conclusion does not hold.
- The greater the number of alternative models needed, the harder it is: we take longer and are more likely to err, especially by overlooking a possibility. In the simulation of a sequence of events, the later in the sequence that a critical event occurs, the longer it will take us to make the inference about it.
- The principle of truth: mental models represent only what is true, and accordingly they predict the occurrence of systematic and compelling fallacies if inferences depend on what is false. An analogous principle applies to the representation of what is possible rather than impossible, to what is permissible rather than impermissible, and to other similar contrasts.
- The meanings of terms such as ‘if’ can be modulated by content and knowledge. For example, our geographical knowledge modulates the disjunction: Jay is in Stockholm or he is in Sweden. Unlike most disjunctions, this one yields a definite conclusion: Jay is in Sweden.
Enjoy this podcast on mental models
Latticework of Mental Models
The phrase ‘Latticework of Mental Models’ comes from Berkshire-Hathaway’s Charles Munger, who is a person that has spent most of his life working out ways to, for lack of a better term, think better.
Munger has come to the conclusion that in order to make better decisions in business and in life, you must find and understand the core principles from all disciplines.
In short, learn all the big ideas and how they interrelate and better, more rational thinking will naturally follow.
This is what he calls Elementary Worldly Wisdom, and using his system of Mental Models can help you succeed in almost any endeavor.
Worldy Wisdom Means Ignoring Boundaries
Munger is big on reading and light on the boundaries separating disciplines. He relishes taking core ideas from one discipline and using them to solve problems in another, often doing it better than those who believe the disciplines are separate and not related.
He is often quoted as saying ‘to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail’ and strongly recommends a mental toolbox filled with an array of tools.
How to Develop New Mental Models
There are two good ways to build new mental models.
- Read books outside the norm. If you read the same material as everyone else, then you’ll think in the same way as everyone else. You can’t expect to see problems in a new way if you’re reading all the same things as your classmates, co-workers, or peers. So, either read books that are seldom read by the rest of your group (like Feynman did with his Calculus book) or read books that are outside your area of interest, but can overlap with it in some way. In other words, look for answers in unexpected places.
- Create a web of ideas that shows how seemingly unrelated ideas connect. Whenever you are reading a new book or listening to someone lecture, write down the various ways that this new information connects to information you already understand. We tend to view knowledge as separated into different silos. We think that a certain set of ideas have to do with economics and another set have to do with medicine and a third set have to do with art history. This is mostly a product of how schools teach subjects, but in the real world information is not separated like this.
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