In one of my previous posts I’d mentioned in passing the importance of taking notes as a way to extend our memory & apply more from what we already know. Before we plunge into that, here’s a little primer on the concept of mental models itself.
Charlie Munger is the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway & needs no introduction. He is famous for advocating the idea of building a mental tool kit for decision making called Mental Models. In short he criticizes our ability to look at any problem from a single dimension.
A more vivid way to explain this idea is from Munger’s own explanation of a man with a hammer syndrome (which is borrowed from Abraham Kaplan / Maslow) - To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.
The hammer is a very useful analogy to understand the concept of mental models. A hammer is a tool needed for a few specific activities. Apart from the intended uses, it can hardly be used for anything else. We intuitively don’t use a hammer to stir the soup, opening a pack of chips, grooming our hair & so on. So now we can see how some tools have very specific applications but when it comes to problem solving in real life we somehow detach our ability to use this analogy. We don’t think in terms of tools or a tool kit, but straightaway plunge into finding a solution without knowing what tools we need to solve the problem. This is perhaps a feature in our brains which relies heavily on shortcuts to come to quick conclusions. These shortcuts are tremendously effective in nature, but in our social systems they can be very painful.
What Charlie Munger advocates (& he is hardly being original) is to build a mental tool kit of several ideas learnt from different disciplines.
Let a practical example do the talking: If we want to ask someone out on a date with us, which methods can we use to turn this possibility into reality? There are two methods, one is the non-mental model method & the other is, of course, the mental models method. In the non-mental model method the first thought that comes to us is of persuasion & fear. We fear of the negative outcome & the emotional hardship that follows. We tend to be overnice & oversell our personalities to impress. We tend to throw platitudes & praises because that’s what we see happening in the films. Good luck with that approach, but real life is not scripted.
But what if we are true to our intentions & followed a mental model approach? We’d surely want to persuade, but we can, instead of overselling ourselves, make that person want to go out on a date with us. We can provide an incentive, a date plus a nice film of the date’s choice. A date plus a dinner at a restaurant of the date’s choice. If that’s not enough, we can always appeal to the date’s interest. If the date loves to read, offer a book as a gift & promise a quiet evening to discuss the book in the future (& wait for it). If the date has some social interests that we share it is always best to find an excuse to do it together.
If that’s not enough we can always appeal to chance & ask the date to go out with us anyway, the chances of our date liking or hating us are roughly 50:50. This will save the date the effort to go out with us again & follow other pursuits. It is also a lot more effective in dealing with denial in case our date doesn’t really like us after all.
So why am I suddenly giving relationship advice? I am not. I illustrated the use of a couple of tools to reach a solution for a very practical problem. I used Psychology & Mathematics as my primary tools.
- Using the power of Incentives (Psychology) - also known as bribing ;-)
- Appeal to Interest (Psychology) - what’s good for you is good for us.
- Allowing the probability of liking / hating (Mathematics) - choose if you wish to do this again.
- Making it easy to deal with Denial (Psychology) - It’s OK, maybe better odds lie elsewhere.
In the previous method of raw persuasion using cliche tactics the outcome may or may not be in our favour, but using mental models remarkably increases the chances of success. It however doesn’t necessarily guarantee a positive outcome. Also a little more thought & many more tools can be used.
[ Certainly must not use a hammer to ask out on a date :-) ]
Dedication to build a tool kit of mental models is a life long process. It doesn’t involve shortcuts, but involves a consistent effort to break our natural ability to jump to conclusions & getting carried away. Mental models allow us to reflect on problems & come with better solutions. With time & frequent use this process speeds up.
Next up, the process flow for recording various mental models which helps recall & make ideas ready to apply.
Peter Bevelin’s book Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition is a great place to get acquainted with how different mental models are connected.
Prof. Sanjay Bakshi has devoted an entire course on Mental Models. Lectures are here.
Farnam Street is an amazing website which regularly curates knowledge that can help build good mental models.