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What are Mental Models? And Why Should You Care?

“Like a pane of glass framing and subtly, distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see”- Peter Senge.

Have you ever stopped to question your perception of the world around you? Have you asked yourself: ‘Is the way you view something really how it is in the real world?’ More often than not the answer is NO because our current perception of the world serves us quite well. In fact, we barely question it at all because that’s how limited our view of the world really is.

But have you stopped to think, that in a world so large and complex, there’s more to life than what we see and recognize? For instance, there are so many ways we can look at a problem and at the same time, there’s always more than one solution to the same problem. As humans, it can be a challenge to analyze and understand the vast amounts of information present in this world which is why we need mental models.

What are Mental models?

In its most basic form, a mental model is an image or model a person has of the world around them, that is, how they perceive their surroundings. This view varies by each being and it helps shape their behavior and how they react to the different situations they are presented with. However, many people only have one mental model and try to use it to solve a variety of problems.

In 1994, during a speech to business school students, Charlie Munger summarized this with a quote ‘To the man with one hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ Possessing just one mental model is equal to having a very narrow perception of the world, which, essentially, is not a great way to operate in the ever-changing world we live in today.

There are numerous mental models that vary by discipline and developing multiple models can help you think more rationally. Here are three mental models used in business, psychology, and economics to help you get started:

Confirmation Bias (Psychology)

Confirmation bias is the tendency of humans to favor the information that aligns with their values and beliefs and ignore everything else that doesn’t fit into our perceptions. A great example would be the Buzzfeed personality quizzes like ‘What Harry Potter character are you?’ Before you even take the quiz, your confirmation bias or the way you perceive yourself has already decided that its Hermione Granger of course!

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You have already confirmed the answer to the quiz based on the traits of the character and how they match up to your own personality. This confirmation bias can be applied to our everyday lives as well. Very often we find ourselves making purchases based on confirmation bias and later finding a rational reason to justify the purchase.

A simple way to overcome confirmation bias is to analyze your reasons for buying something, be it a stock or a car- you need to look at both sides of the coin. Make a list of the pros and cons along with the reasons why you want to make the purchase and why you might want to sell it in the future.

Also read: 5 Common Behavioral Biases That Every Investor Should Know.

Moral Hazard (Economics)

A moral hazard is when one party or entity makes a decision on how much risk to take while another party suffers the consequences if things go south. Moral hazard can be dangerous as it can cause the party that does not bear any costs to practice reckless and impetuous behavior.

While in theory, moral hazard can seem unlikely, as society has come to believe that the person making the decision has to bear its associated costs as well, this concept is very much prevalent in the insurance and medical industries. For example, a person taking out a policy on fire insurance has no motivation to protect their home from the risk of fire as they know that any damage caused by fire will be the responsibility of the insurance company. Likewise, in the medical industry, doctors are more likely to prescribe expensive treatment or surgery to their patients if they are covered by medical insurance.

Another great example of moral hazard is during the 2008 financial crisis, where banks and other financial institutions were close to bankruptcy due to their recklessness and poor decision-making. In the end, it was the government that had to intervene and prevent these companies from going under using tax-payers money to bail them out. The consequences of the poor deal-making on the side of the banks was borne by the government.

Network Effect (Business)

A network effect is when the utility you receive from using a product increases as more people use the same product and service and is a common mental model used in business.

A great example is the different types of social media we use today. When Twitter was first introduced, not many people knew exactly what it was and hence not many accounts existed. At this time your motivation to create a Twitter account is not too high as there aren’t many people you can interact with on the platform. But as Twitter gained popularity and more people started using it, you were more inclined to join as the utility you receive from it is now much greater than it was before. The network effect has made Twitter a major source of news today.

The network effect is prevalent in e-commerce sites as well. With websites like Amazon, the value of the platform increases as more people purchase goods and services and leave positive reviews. This encourages more people to use the platform, thus increasing revenue for the company. The network effect is a mental model used in many businesses and is a great way for companies to gain a competitive advantage in the market they operate in.

Resources to read:

Conclusion

The mental models listed above are just three in a long list of models that exist. Mental models can vary by discipline and it can often be a challenge for humans to learn and understand all the models that exist.

However, it is important to master the primary models to gain the wisdom of the world. Charlie Munger refers to these as the ‘Big Ideas.’ Mental models can help you think ‘outside the box’ and widen your perspectives on the world. You can use them to make wise and intelligent decisions!

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