The Mental Models Paradox >>

Ever since word of Charlie Munger’s worldly wisdom built upon a latticework of mental models got out, people have become obsessed with what mental models they can use to make them smarter. If we take these mental models and conceptual frameworks and run our reality through them, then we’ll become better thinkers, make better decisions (and investments), and achieve Munger-level wisdom (and wealth). Or will we?

Here’s the paradox:  

Good mental models, and other conceptual frameworks, make us smarter but only up to a point, after which they can actually constrain our thinking.

mental models

Make sure your mental models are building blocks to higher wisdom, not brick walls constraining your thinking (image courtesy of Pexels)

Accelrating Executive Mastery

This is the Precursor to Accelerating Executive Expertise >>, my Series exploring the metagame of mental models and mastery and how you can get better, faster.

Read the next post Mental Models & Mastery: Forging a Theory >> and sign up to my Newsletter here, or in the pop ups, to stay updated.

What is a mental model?

A mental model is a representation of some domain or situation that supports understanding, reasoning, and prediction. Mental models permit reasoning about situations not directly experienced. They allow people to mentally simulate the behavior of a system. Many mental models are based on generalizations and analogies from experience. These generalizations are not always accurate; researchers have identified striking cases of widespread erroneous mental models.

Mental Models, Psychology Of

A mental model is an imperfect construction of how something works. Because the world is such a complex place, we use mental models and other conceptual frameworks to help us simplify this complexity, rather than be overwhelmed by it1

Mental models help us navigate the world, to make sense of it, understand and reason, and make predictions. 

The limitations of mental models

Mental models aren’t reality

”The map is not the territory”, said Polish-American philosopher and engineer Alfred Korzybski, conveying the fact that people often confuse models of reality with reality itself:

Models stand to represent things, but they are not identical to those things. Even at their best, models require interpretation. They are imperfect because they are, by definition, an abstraction of some larger complexity.

That larger complexity is the world around us and the systems within it. These complex adaptive systems exist on the edge of chaos, a transition space between order and disorder that is exists within a wide variety of systems (including businesses). This transition zone is a region of bounded instability that engenders a constant dynamic interplay between order and disorder.

Reality is messy and disorganised. Frameworks are anything but. Frameworks promise to bring order to reality in pleasing ways. They blunt the chaos and give you buckets with which to categorise your observations. Frameworks are so compelling to the human mind because the mind is a sense-making tool, and sense-making tools abhor not making sense of information. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that frameworks feel like they are the Right Way To Think About Things™.

Reality Without Frameworks, by Cedric Chin

Mental models are necessarily reductive

We begin our learning journeys, through formal education and our early careers, acquiring more basic forms of explicit knowledge. This type of knowledge consists of teachable, learnable, conceptual facts that are stored in our memory and which are fairly static in nature.

As we progress, we acquire more tacit knowledge. This is knowledge that is hard to express or extract, formalise or codify. It is more difficult to transfer to others by means of writing it down or verbalising. It includes personal wisdom, experience, insight, and intuition. 

The essence of all such [knowledge and learning] theories is the notion that reasoning or knowledge originates as an analytic, conscious, deliberative, step-wise process, and evolves into rapid, automatic, non-conscious, understanding or immediate perceptual judgments.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

As a codifiable, explainable, simplification of complex reality, mental models are excellent tools. But they reduce complex reality to something much simpler than it really is. This simplicity is comforting for the human brain and we are drawn towards it in the earlier stages of our developmental journeys. This phenomena is known as the reductive tendency:

The inclination for learners to construct understandings and categories that are overly simplistic is referred to as the “reductive tendency.” It is an inevitable consequence of how people learn. That is, when people are forming a new understanding or developing a new category their knowledge is necessarily incomplete. It is only through additional experience and thought that distinctions come to be perceived, understood and learned. So at any point in time, the human’s understanding of anything that is at all complex, even some of the understandings held by domain experts, is bound to be overly simplistic at least in some respects.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

Mental models risk creating Knowledge Shields

Because of the reductive tendency, we end up with mental models that are, at the same time, helpful but overly-simplistic. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because we have a better understanding of how something works, but bad because it’s a mis-representation of the true reality. It always fails to take into account its true complexity, subtlety and nuance.

Knowledge shields compound this imprecision if we become trapped by the sensemaking utility of the model. Imagine being so cognitively trapped by the mental model that you can’t see outside of it, to the greater depths of complexity, subtelty and nuance that the model, by definition, fails to account for. Unable to reject anomalous data because it doesn’t fit with the model, learners are prevented from reaching higher levels of expertise.

When learners are confronted with evidence contrary to their views, they engage mental manoeuvres to rationalise their faulty beliefs without fundamentally altering their views. These are the “knowledge shields”.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

Do you have the mental model, or has the mental model got you?

Mental models and frameworks are paradoxical in nature.

They are vital for making sense of the world and providing the building blocks for learning. We learn through the construction and layering of mental models at an increasingly higher level of abstraction. We rely on them to help us navigate the world, to make sense of it, understand and reason, and make predictions. 

But we can become over-reliant on them, often without realising. 

When this happens, the very models that we think are making us wiser are actually trapping and constraining not just our thinking but also our development towards higher levels of abstraction and mastery. In a Dunning-Kruger’esque way, we think we’re smarter than we really are. The model’s simplification of reality fails to present us with a true representation of what is actually happening and we don’t have the capacity to see it.

Vertical Development - Subject-Object - Robert Kegan

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is Water, by David Foster Wallace

I’ve seen coaching clients challenged by this. Remember what Cedric Chin says about how mental models and frameworks “feel like they are the Right Way To Think About Things™”? The problems start when the complexity of a given situation is beyond the sensemaking capacity of the mental model or framework being applied to it, and the individual applying it. When that person tries to force the scenario through the model, but to no avail, they get frustrated, angry and even deeply anxious and insecure.

The reason [they] are so popular… it’s because they help give meaning and shape to the chaos of reality. Hence the novice clings to them like a life jacket. The expert goes deeper, they don’t just pattern match. They lounge in the chaos. Only then do they try to apply certain lenses. They step back and ask “what’s going on here”?

Cedric Chin (paraphrased from this podcast)

Munger, Mental models and Mastery

Let’s return to what Charlie Munger said said about mental models in its entirety, which is that not only do you need a latticework of them, but you’ve also got to array your experience – both vicarious and direct – onto this latticework:

What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience – both vicarious and direct – on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

From a speech given by Charlie Munger at USC Business School in 1994, ”A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business”

This is really important because it’s supported by the decades of academic research into expertise and high-proficiency. Channelling Munger, experts unconsciously organise and hang their thinking off their models and schemas:

When experts approach familiar problems, their responses do not tend to be from an analytical or deliberative process as is the case for non-experts. Rather, an organized set of memories drawn from extensive experience forms schemas or mental models, which give meaning and structure to familiar and repeatedly encountered problem sets. These schemas provide intuitive, immediate cognitive frameworks to help understand the nature of the problem, derive potential solutions, and anticipate constraints.

Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in a Complex World

Knowledge of mental models alone is not sufficient to attain mastery

Hearing the latest techbro / investor / productivity guru expound what mental model and framework they used to inform their last big decision might sound clever. But it can actually signpost a lack of expertise and, paradoxically, over-relying on a model can lead to a lack of wisdom. 

In a future article, I’ll dive deeper into how experts embrace Cognitive Flexibility Theory and Cognitive Transformation Theory to operate at high-proficiency in complex environments. This is the world of doctors, submarine commanders, mountain guides, pilots, special forces soldiers and CEOs and executive leaders. For now, if you’d like more, then check out Cedric Chin’s summary of the underlying theory of Accelerated Expertise.

Accelrating Executive Mastery

Thanks for reading the Precursor to my Accelerating Executive Expertise, my Series exploring the metagame of mental models and mastery and how you can get better, faster.

Read the next post Mental Models & Mastery: Forging a Theory >> and sign up to my Newsletter here, or in the pop ups, to stay updated.

1 Dave Snowden, creator of the Cynefin framework (to help navigate complexity) best explains the difference between a mental model and a framework:

  • model seeks to represent reality, or more appropriately some aspect of the world. It allows for simulation and exploration without encountering the irreversibility of reality.  The cliche rightly says that all models are wrong, but some are useful, but the cliche is linked to the nature of a model and its claims; it is not a universal statement.
  • framework provides a way, or better ways, of looking at the world or an aspect of the world. Ideally a framework provides different perspectives on an issue.  It allows things to be looked at from those perspectives.  Frameworks can be taxonomies or typologies with the latter less prone to category errors.  They can be social constructs, based on research or derived from some body of underlying theory. Cynefin for example is a typology derived from theory, but the fact that said theory implies phase shifts means that it also as some taxonomic qualities.

I’m Richard Hughes-Jones, an Executive Coach to CEOs and senior technology leaders.

My clients are transitional founders, CEOs and executives in high-growth technology businesses, the investment industry and progressive corporates.

Having often already mastered the technical aspects of their craft, I help my clients navigate the complex adaptive challenges associated with executive-level leadership and growth.

Find out more about my Executive Coaching services and get in touch if you’d like to explore working together. You can also read my Complete Guide to Finding the Right Executive Coach for You.

Executive Coach - Richard Hughes-Jones