Mental Models

Mental Models


You go to your nearest market to buy groceries for the week. You get to the chocolate isle and it’s time to decide what chocolate bar you will stock up on. The question now is, how do you choose which chocolate bars to purchase? 

Do you look for a “Fair Trade” logo that indicates fair labor and environmental practices? Do you look for a label that says “organic” because you’re trying to eat healthy? Do you look for something with low sugar, because you’re on a diet? Do you buy something without milk because you’re lactose intolerant? Do you buy the brand your mother has been buying for years? Do you pick something that’s cheap because you’re trying to save up? Or do you simply opt for your favorite childhood chocolate bar, because it’s still the best?

You see, buying groceries comes so naturally to us that we don’t give the activity much thought, and yet - there are many simultaneous thought processes that are a part of our decision-making. And it’s not just with grocery shopping. The way we view, perceive, analyze, and approach things in the outside (real) world is based on what we make of them in our inner world - in our mind.

These, in fact, are mental models.

What Are Mental Models?

According to Jay Wright Forrester (1918 - 2016), American systems scientist and computer engineer who also explored mental models,

A mental model is an explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (similar to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks. 

As you can see, mental models are internalized explanations of how things work. They affect the way we approach situations and problems in the real world based on how we perceive, analyze, and evaluate our former learning and experience. In a general sense, mental models can refer to any sort of worldview or framework through which we approach the external reality. For instance, in the example of choosing a chocolate bar we gave above, there are several different modes of thinking you, the buyer, may go through before deciding on a bar of chocolate. 

In simple terms, mental models help us understand how life works and how to approach it. The map is not the territory - the way something appears isn’t what it is in reality. So, a mental model isn’t so much the way things are as it is the way you interpret things in your mind so that you can interact with them. This includes everything that can be perceived, starting with understanding scientific theories, all the way to communicating with people in our lives.

For instance, game theory is a mental model that helps us understand how relationships between individuals (players) affect the possible outcomes of a situation. Although in general terms it’s sort of a science of strategy, it’s often used in economics to understand the decisions of buyers. In physics, inertia is a mental model that helps us understand the tendencies of objects (when in motion, to stay in motion, when at rest, to stay at rest). As you can see, the mental model is based on some outside fact, but it’s still adapted in a way that’s understandable for the human mind. 

In terms of social communication, we all have internalized mental models that directly influence the way we form and maintain relationships. For instance, some people who have trouble communicating with others, use astrological signs to better understand the characters of others. While you may find the categorization dubious, it’s still a mental model that helps some people approach others and improve their social interactions.

Mental Models Are Imperfect, Yet Useful

Mental models are far from perfect. After all, there’s no way of truly understanding the outside world or the inner world of another being. Even in natural sciences, like mathematics, which are often assumed to be exact, there’s no 100% accuracy. In physics, for instance, our understanding of a phenomenon can change within years or even months, based on a single new discovery. 

Think about gravity. Until Einstein’s general theory of relativity, Newtonian physics had categorized gravity as a force. However, according to the general theory of relativity, gravity is a field, not a force. In other words, rather than there being a force that pulls smaller objects towards a larger object, there’s a curve in spacetime caused by the higher mass of the larger objects, causing smaller objects (with smaller mass) to move around them along geodesic lines. 

What we can conclude here is that no matter how close we get to the truth, we are still dealing with possible explanations and theories. It’s not so much about the right theory, as it’s about the best theory (kind of like GRE verbal reasoning questions).

The Scientific Method 

In fact, the philosophy of science has long dealt with how our perceptions of the world affect the conclusions we make about it. For instance, Thomas Kuhn, American philosopher of science, along with several others such as Paul Feyerbend and Norwood Hanson (and preceded by Pierre Duhem), explored the “theory-ladenness” of scientific observations. This means that when a scientist makes an observation, that observation can never be fully objective. Let’s break this down a bit.

The classical scientific method goes: hypothesis > observations > conclusion. Let’s say your hypothesis is that if you pour water on a towel, it will get wet. You pour water and observe that the towel is indeed wet. Your conclusion will have confirmed your hypothesis.

However, Kuhn’s approach shows us that the hypothesis - the theory we start off with - influences the way we interpret the observations. In the end, the conclusion we make from those observations is largely based on the internal bias we have. So the theory we start off with affects the results. That’s why theory-laden observations cannot be objectively true.

Let’s look at a very simplistic example of how our internalized theories affect the way we observe the outside world. You and your friend are sitting on a park bench. You see a man drop a crumpled-up piece of paper on the ground. Based on your positive experience with people and somewhat optimistic worldview, you assume that the man will pick up the trash and throw it in a bin. Your friend, on the other hand, has witnessed more negative behavior in people and therefore has a more pessimistic view of humanity. 

If the man doesn't pick up the trash and keeps walking, you, with your positive worldview, may assume that the man didn’t notice the trash fall out of his pocket, so your theory remains unchallenged. Your friend’s perception of the world will be equally “confirmed,” so to speak. On the other hand, if the man does pick up the trash and throw it in the bin, your friend can assume that it’s a fluke, i.e. the exception that proves the rule, and at the same time, your perception will remain “confirmed”.

In this sense, our internalized theories of humanity affect our expectations and observations of the world. This is an example of a mental model known as confirmation bias.

Still, it’s inevitable to have some sort of theory that helps us move through life and education. In other words, we need to have these mental models that help us understand and approach the world outside.

Mental Models Are Evaluated Based on Their Utility

We said that it’s not about the right theory, but about the best theory. The same goes for mental models. Although it’s difficult to talk about the most objectively truthful worldview, we can talk about the most useful worldview, i.e. most useful mental model. That’s why we evaluate mental models based on their utility.

In daily life, for instance, the way you approach things can significantly affect your personal experience. Sadly - or luckily, depending on your position - the cliche that we are our own worst enemy and best friend is pretty much true. The mental models we use when analyzing and approaching the world can make things a lot harder or a lot easier for us.

Luckily, mental models aren’t fixed - they are something we can learn to develop.

Mental Models Can Be Learned

If mental models are evaluated based on their utility, it follows that knowing different mental models can help us find one that is most useful. In fact, learning various mental models can help us make better decisions and life choices, build healthier relationships, analyze the world in a more constructive way, and even approach our work more creatively.

In his Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems, Forrester shares his two cents on the matter:

The mental model is fuzzy. It is incomplete. It is imprecisely stated. Furthermore, within one individual, a mental model changes with time and even during the flow of a single conversation. The human mind assembles a few relationships to fit the context of a discussion. As the subject shifts so does the model. When only a single topic is being discussed, each participant in a conversation employs a different mental model to interpret the subject. Fundamental assumptions differ but are never brought into the open. Goals are different and are left unstated. It is little wonder that compromise takes so long. And it is not surprising that consensus leads to laws and programs that fail in their objectives or produce new difficulties greater than those that have been relieved.

As you can see, mental models happen - and shift - whether we are aware of them or not. However, we can grow conscious and - to a degree - in control of how we think and approach the world by learning mental models which are useful. By useful, we mean mental models that give us the necessary tools to think in an effective, organized, and rational way, and eventually, improve the quality of our life experience, relationships, and work.

In other words, you can learn to think better.

Mental Models Definition

Mental models are: 

  • practical representations of how something works;
  • great at giving insight into how people perceive the world and their environment; 
  • used to simplify and explain details, information, and content in a much simpler manner;
  • said to include, but are not limited to: concepts, categories, prototypes, identities, and worldviews; 
  • instrumental when it comes to how we take action and express our views to others;
  • key when it comes to building stable and durable organizations (as Peter M. Sange said: “That is why the discipline of managing mental models - surfacing, testing, and improving our internal pictures of how the world works - promises to be a major breakthrough for building learning organizations.”); 
  • said to form the basis of intellectual reasoning, decision making, and overall human behavior; 
  • usually created by individuals on the basis of their personal understandings, thoughts, perceptions, experiences, and opinions;
  • changeable (they alter as our state of mind alters and we gain new awareness and understanding of the world as well as specific fields); 
  • simplistic representations of otherwise complex phenomena; 
  • like filters that help us process, understand, store, accept and/or reject all the information that reaches us; 
  • cognitive representations and portrayal of the external reality; 
  • sometimes created on the basis of analogical thinking (this means that when someone tries to explain a specific domain which is unfamiliar to them, they’ll try to draw from a field they’re familiar with, and this essentially requires tapping into an existing mental model and then imposing its structure to the other domain); 
  • said to represent both physical and conceptual entities; 
  • very useful because they’re capable of integrating different perspectives among various groups of people; 
  • beneficial because they stand for a collective representation of a specific system whose function is to make the decision-making process better and easier; 
  • challenging our beliefs and thought patterns.

Mental models aren’t:

  • complete and/or finished (they’re constantly evolving and shifting as the world itself evolves and shifts, or as illustrated through the words of Joseph Jaworski: “To think that the world can ever change without changes in our mental models is folly”.); 
  • always supposed to be taken for granted (this is partially connected to the first bullet point; as they’re constantly changing, we need to change our opinions and approaches along with them); 
  • really objective (most of the time they refer to personalized and internalized perceptions);
  • accurate at all times, because there is always a level of uncertainty about their validity and precision in helping us arrive at the correct answer, find the right approach, make the right decision, and so on; 
  • very difficult to understand (that said, it also depends on the type of model, as well as how much knowledge and experience a person has prior to approaching the matter); 
  • perfect (many have limitations and that’s why they frequently undergo changes and are being updated); 
  • totally independent (in fact, they’re formed with similar concepts in mind and they include a network of relations and concepts).

The History of Mental Models 

Mental models are said to have been first postulated by Charles Sanders Peirce, an American philosopher, back in 1896. He stated that reasoning is a process by which an individual:

...examines the state of things asserted in the premisses, forms a diagram of that state of things, perceives in the parts of the diagram relations not explicitly mentioned in the premisses, satisfies itself by mental experiments upon the diagram that these relations would always subsist, or at least would do so in a certain proportion of cases, and concludes their necessary, or probable, truth.

The so-called “diagram” Peirce mentioned is basically the mental model of the world. 

That said, the actual term “mental model” is said to originate from Kenneth Craik’s book The Nature of Explanation (1943). 

A bit earlier, in 1927, in his book Le dessin enfantin (Children's drawings), Georges-Henri Luquet argued that children are able to construct internal models. His views ended up influencing Jean Piaget, a child phycologist. 

Then, there’s Philip Johnson-Laird, who published Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness (1983). What’s interesting is that in that same year, Dedre Gentner and Albert Stevens ended up editing a collection of book chapters titled Mental Models

These are just some of the most significant publications when it comes to illustrating how the concept of mental models developed. Of course, nowadays, we have a much broader (but also a much deeper) understanding of what mental models are, what they represent, how they serve us, and how to best make use of them. 

We also can’t skip mentioning Charlie Munger (we’ll actually mention him several times throughout our article, so make sure you read on), as he basically popularized the use of mental models across a wide range of disciplines, and especially in business and investment contexts.

Why Are Mental Models Important?

There’s a story that goes like this: 

“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said “This being is like a thick snake”. For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, “is a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.”

So, the conclusion is that based on what they’re exposed to, each person has a different perspective in life and a different way of reasoning - yet they’re all absolutely certain in their own opinions.

How do mental models come into play here? 

While mental models can’t “force us” to be objective (that’s not their purpose anyway), they can encourage us to be mindful of our reasoning, and question how we arrive at conclusions. In other words, they help us understand our thinking process, our beliefs, and our rationale. 

Above all, mental models are important because they’re useful. They help us make sense of specific concepts, make intelligent decisions, and understand the world around us.

Mental Models Matter Because:

  • Mental models help us become more conscious of our thinking processes. 
  • They’re able to offer strategic thinking about specific problems/issues people face on a daily basis. 
  • Mental models assist us in perceiving the world better. 
  • Mental models help groups and teams analyze the same problem using the same asset (that is, the mental model(s)). 
  • They help us become better decision-makers.
  • They make us better thinkers. 
  • Mental models help us understand how all things are interconnected and force us to see the link among them. In other words, instead of seeing things in isolation, they allow us to view the bigger picture. 
  • They are significant because they bring value to all areas of our lives. And when we say all areas, we aren’t exaggerating. There really isn’t an aspect of your life that isn’t shaped by mental models. 
  • Mental models matter because they can be personalized. Apart from well-known mental models (which we discuss in detail later on in our article), each of us has their own internalized mental models. These are sometimes even more important, as we tend to use them on a daily basis throughout our lives, and we know how to apply them best.

How to Develop Mental Models? 

You can never develop a mental model and expect each person to perceive it in the same way. Each person will bring their own baggage and background along with them, approaching mental models subjectively.

This isn’t to say one perspective is more important than the other, there’s no such hierarchy. Instead, it demonstrates how difficult it is to come up with a proper mental model that can be accepted in the same way by people from different backgrounds. 

Now, when it comes to developing mental models, there are two main aspects:

  1. Understanding how the brain develops mental models;
  2. Understanding how you can create a specific mental model.

We'll briefly cover the two approaches. And by the way, do you know what’s the most fascinating thing about developing mental models? We actually have to use our previous mental models if we want to build a new one!

Understanding How the Brain Develops Them

We’re not going to go into neurology and how the brain works, because to do so we’ll need a whole separate article. Rather, we’ll only scratch the surface in the context of mental models. 

So, we’ll keep things simple, and just briefly explain how the brain makes the necessary links when it comes to connecting information and making sense of the world:

The simplest example is the primary visual cortex, in which neighboring columns of neurons process information from neighboring small regions of visual space. In this case, the spatial organization of the neurons corresponds systematically to the spatial organization of the world, in the same way that the location of major cities on a map of Brazil corresponds to the actual location of those cities.

Understanding How You Can Create a Specific Mental Model

Now, if you’re curious as to how you can create a brand new mental model, you may wish to follow the following suggestions: 

  • Get inspired. Read about other people’s successes and also take a look at other mental models. See how they came into being. Analyze the aspects and notions surrounding them. 
  • Come up with some theories about your potential model. See how you feel about them, is there anything that doesn’t make sense? Also, don’t hesitate to consult others. 
  • Keep a journal and write down your ideas. Of course, you don’t have to apply all of them in practice, but you can never know when (or which ones) will come in handy at some point. 
  • Refine your own mental models. Paradoxically, working on a new mental model means you need to work with and keep upgrading your existing ones.
  • Understand the purpose behind your mental model. What is it that you are trying to achieve, and who can actually use this model in the future? 

Of course, creating a mental model others will end up applying is not that easy. In fact, some mental models became what they are today in an organic manner, not by someone “forcing” them into existence.

Examples of Mental Models in Everyday Life


Mental models are very commonly used in the business sphere because they help managers and executives understand how we comprehend pieces of information and react to them. Also, business leaders need to understand how they think and why they think the way they do so that they can recognize their strengths, but also their shortcomings. 

There are many mental models in the business world - from the supply and demand model and the Bullwhip effect, to the opportunity cost and diminishing returns. Whatever mental model a business manager focuses on, it’s important to realize that they’re interconnected. 

In other words, when you’re approaching a specific business problem or an economic issue, you need to be able to see the whole picture. You can’t analyze things separately, as that’s not how the economy works (or any business for that matter). 

So, if you’re running a business, you need to have a general understanding of markets, investor and consumer psychology, finances, accounting, managerial skills, incentive structures, interest, and so on. 

Let’s analyze a more specific example.

Let’s imagine that this year, your company is making less money than last year. You can’t just assume that your pricing strategy is wrong. You’ll need to look at competitors, see the current marketing strategy, what changes (if any) you’ve done to your products/services during the year, which customer base you’ve targeted, and so on. 

In other words, a single issue requires a multi-faceted analysis in order to be properly solved. Plus, it’s not just about solving it - it’s also about understanding what caused this issue in the first place so that you don’t have to face it again in the future. 

Furthermore, you can apply different mental models in distinct business-related situations. One such model is the supply and demand model when you're working on price determination. 

The Charlie Munger’s Example 

We already explained the importance of mental models in business contexts, and also some of their implications. 

That said, it’s important to understand how mental models work together. In other words, it’s not just about understanding one specific model - it’s about keeping an open mind and realizing the interconnectedness between models and drawing ideas from other experiences and models.

To illustrate this with a more practical example, we’ll share Charlie Munger’s experience and the point he makes in relation to all these: 

I have posed at two different business schools the following problem. I say, “You have studied supply and demand curves. You have learned that when you raise the price, ordinarily the volume you can sell goes down, and when you reduce the price, the volume you can sell goes up. Is that right? That’s what you’ve learned?” They all nod yes. And I say, “Now tell me several instances when, if you want the physical volume to go up, the correct answer is to increase the price?” And there’s this long and ghastly pause. And finally, in each of the two business schools in which I’ve tried this, maybe one person in fifty could name one instance. They come up with the idea that occasionally a higher price acts as a rough indicator of quality and thereby increases sales volumes.

(…) only one in fifty can come up with this sole instance in a modern business school – one of the business schools being Stanford, which is hard to get into. And nobody has yet come up with the main answer that I like. Suppose you raise that price, and use the extra money to bribe the other guy’s purchasing agent? (Laughter). Is that going to work? And are there functional equivalents in economics — microeconomics — of raising the price and using the extra sales proceeds to drive sales higher? And of course there are zillion, once you’ve made that mental jump. It’s so simple.

How to approach this? 

  • What’s your current mental approach to business and how can you make it even better? 
  • How can you keep your entrepreneurial spirit alive? 
  • Do you understand business mental models (at least those you’re familiar with) and do you feel prepared to put them into practice? Have you ever made a mistake? What do you consider to be a mistake? 
  • How successful do you perceive yourself to be? And what do you perceive as success - money, career status, job qualifications, the way others see you, or something else? 
  • Do you think your business thinking skills are the best they can be? How do you work on improving them? 
  • What business benefits have you personally experienced when it comes to proper implementation of mental models? 
  • Do you stand behind each decision you make at your workplace? 
  • Are you afraid of failure when it comes to your professional life? Do you share your fears with others? 
  • How willing are you to take risks? What’s more, how much time do you need to make a decision? And how do you finally make up your mind? What type of thinking strategy do you usually employ in such situations? 
  • Before you make any type of decision, take into account every piece of information. Are you missing something? Should you talk to someone else? Maybe run things by another person? Take a day or two to reflect on things again? 
  • What’s the best business decision you’ve made so far? What did you learn from it? How did it prepare you for your future decision-making process?
  • How do you implement your business decisions? Who’s responsible for them? How is progress communicated? What are potential obstacles that may pop up? If they do, how should they be addressed? 
  • Are there any business decisions you regret making? Why? What type of learning experience was that for you?
  • What do you think about reversible decisions? 
  • How do you feel about decisions that have deadlines? Does that put some extra pressure on you? If yes, how can you manage to make those decisions better? 


Apart from business, science is yet another field where we notice a plethora of mental models. We see them everywhere - from physics and chemistry to biology and psychology. 

Plus, they include a wide range of “activities” - they may refer to the act of teaching science to students, where we measure how our teaching is perceived and/or what their learning style is, or it can refer to scientific research.

It’s also important to explore how these mental models evolve with age. For instance, Darwin’s evolution model holds different implications within distinct periods of history and how much it will be embraced by groups in society depends upon their beliefs and scientific inclinations. For instance, some conservatively religious individuals may dismiss evolution by default. 

Again, we’re coming back to personal beliefs, previous knowledge, and our general understanding of the world. We saw at the beginning, where we talked about how new scientific discoveries have influenced the existing scientific currents, that even in science, our beliefs and theories affect the way we view the results of scientific research. That is to say, science isn’t safe from theory-ladenness and confirmation bias. We see what we expect to see. 

So, expanding your existing set of mental models can bring further understanding of scientific facts, questions, and issues. What’s more, it can even challenge the ways you understood things previously.

The James Clear Example 

Now, let’s discuss the potential danger of limiting oneself to a single model. We’ll share James Clear’s views on it, as we find his explanation to be on point:

The more you master a single mental model, the more likely it becomes that this mental model will be your downfall because you’ll start applying it indiscriminately to every problem. What looks like expertise is often a limitation. As the common proverb says, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

He then gives an example by Robert Sapolsky, a biologist. He asked the following: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Here are some answers he shares from experts from various fields:

  • If you ask an evolutionary biologist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because they saw a potential mate on the other side.”
  • If you ask a kinesiologist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because the muscles in the leg contracted and pulled the leg bone forward during each step.”
  • If you ask a neuroscientist, they might say, “The chicken crossed the road because the neurons in the chicken’s brain fired and triggered the movement.”

The point he makes is the following: while none of the experts seems to be wrong, none is able to see the whole picture either. Each of them analyzes the questions by using a mental model from their respective fields. 

But the problem is that the challenges we face in our daily lives and in our work can’t really be explained by means of a single mental model or a single discipline. 

In other words, we’re able to arrive at a more fulfilling answer by employing different perspectives and knowledge from various fields.

How to approach this? 

  • How do you come up with research questions, hypotheses, and arguments when you’re working on a specific issue?
  • How can mental models be better applied in various scientific fields?
  • According to you, what are some of the most challenging mental models found in science?
  • Do you ever challenge already existing mental models or you take them for granted because they’ve already been established as successful and useful? 
  • Do you have your own mental models when it comes to analyzing science?
  • How can people become better thinkers when it comes to analyzing scientific facts and scientific mysteries? 
  • Should people bring their emotions into science? In other words, should they analyze and evaluate stuff they’re emotionally invested in, or you think that may be counter-productive? 
  • What makes a good researcher? What qualities/skills should they have? Make a list and include at least 5 important qualities/skills. Also, it’s useful to think of ways how those qualities and skills can be obtained.
  • How should mental models used in science be taught? Practically, theoretically, or do you think both matter equally? Also, how should they be adapted depending on the students’ age and level of education? 
  • How do you know whether you’re comfortable with a specific mental model? Is it when you’re able to understand its practical implementation? Also, how do you approach understanding mental models that come across as challenging at a first glance? 
  • Do you think having mental models in general contributes to a better understanding of science? Why? Why not? 

General Human Reasoning 

Let’s step away from all the mental models out there for a bit. Let’s stick to more basic stuff now and focus on what’s known to us, humans, without any fancy mental model vocabulary. 

Why? Because that’s how we lead our lives. Unless there’s a specific purpose (for example, it’s part of our profession and/or curiosity), we don’t have the tendency to obsess about our thinking models and analyze each step in our decision-making processes. 

Otherwise, our way of living would be heavily altered - we’d probably spend a lot more time analyzing our thinking and thought-processing models*, rather than actually making decisions and taking action. 

That said, it’s more than clear each of us perceives life based on our personal assumptions and beliefs. This applies even to the most basic stuff. 

*On a side note, we just briefly want to mention that we completely encourage deep introspection and reflection on our lives, but if it starts hindering our daily routines and tasks, then it becomes an issue. Our advice is - everything in moderation. 

The tourist example 

You’ve arrived in a foreign city, found your accommodation, and now you have to navigate the city. 

If you give the same map to each tourist in the same city, they’ll all focus on different things. Some may even feel uncomfortable with a physical map - they’ll prefer using their phones. Others would like a pen or a pencil to actually circle places they want to visit in the city. Some may find this distracting.

Then, certain people might dislike looking at the map often, so they may prefer getting voice directions. Others may feel self-conscious walking around a city with their voice directions on all the time. 

Finally, there are people who struggle with orientation in general and they’re not very good at reading maps (in other words, spatial intelligence isn’t their forte), and so they have to come up with other methods and ways to adjust to their new surroundings. Some are even heavily dependent upon other people having to be with them all the time, as they may not be able to find their way back. 

To cut a long story short, each tourist will have a different orientation approach and will use a different spatial mental model but they all have the same end-goal in mind: to find their location, safely move around the city, and find everything they need to see in a manner which feels comfortable and intimate to them. 

But to do so, each tourist has to use their own thoughts, approaches, navigation, orientation style, and so on. 


Each of us has our own, personal mental model that helps us understand our reality better. These mental models are so embedded in our psyche that we’re probably not even fully conscious about the way we apply them in our everyday life. 

You may not have a specific name for your “model”, but you don’t need to. You probably don’t even refer to your decision-making process and/or cognitive reasoning as mental models - and yet, they are.

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

How to approach this? 

  • How committed are you to making changes in your life? 
  • How open are you to new ideas, thoughts, and habits? What’s the most challenging thing when it comes to making changes? 
  • How objective are you about the way you make your decisions?
  • What’s one thing you’re the most biased about? Why? How do you know you’re biased and are you doing anything to change that?
  • When you dwell on a problem, are you tapping into your fears or your intuition? How can you tell?
  • What are some decisions you make on a daily basis that require little to no thinking effort? Does this ever change? 
  • Do you make decisions that are in line with your long-term goals or not? And do you pay attention to this at all?
  • How much do you pay attention to potential risks when you make decisions? 
  • How aware are you of your thinking process when you need to make decisions? 
  • Do you have the tendency to overthink things? If yes, does this bother you? How do you handle it?
  • What’s a bright mind, based on your beliefs?
  • Think of a time you made an unpopular decision. What was it about? 
  • Before you decide on something, do you consider your past experiences? 
  • When you are in the process of making decisions, do you value others’ contribution, that is, do you allow others’ advice to influence you? Conversely, do you consciously affect others’ decision-making processes? 
  • What’s the most difficult thing about having to make tough decisions? 
  • What’s easier - making professional decisions or decisions that affect your personal life?
  • According to you, what qualities does a successful decision-maker need to have? 
  • Do you rush into decisions or do you take your time? 

Mental Models Famous Quotes 

“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try to 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 mental models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience, both vicarious and direct, on this latticework of models.” 

Charlie Munger

“Our mental models aren’t reality. They are tools, like the models weather forecasters use to predict the weather.”

Ed Catmull 

“You need a different checklist and different mental models for different companies. I can never make it easy by saying, ‘Here are three things.’ You have to derive it yourself to ingrain it in your head for the rest of your life.”

Charlie Munger 

“Extroverts are more likely to take a quick-and-dirty approach to problem-solving, trading accuracy for speed, making increasing numbers of mistakes as they go, and abandoning ship altogether when the problem seems too difficult or frustrating. Introverts think before they act, digest information thoroughly, stay on task longer, give up less easily, and work more accurately. Introverts and extroverts also direct their attention differently: if you leave them to their own devices, the introverts tend to sit around wondering about things, imagining things, recalling events from their past, and making plans for the future. The extroverts are more likely to focus on what's happening around them. It's as if extroverts are seeing "what is" while their introverted peers are asking "what if.” 

Susan Cain

“You may believe that you are responsible for what you do, but not for what you think. The truth is that you are responsible for what you think, because it is only at this level that you can exercise choice. What you do comes from what you think. ” 

Marianne Williamson

“Thinking about something is like picking up a stone when taking a walk, either while skipping rocks on the beach, for example, or looking for a way to shatter the glass doors of a museum. When you think about something, it adds a bit of weight to your walk, and as you think about more and more things you are liable to feel heavier and heavier, until you are so burdened you cannot take any further steps, and can only sit and stare at the gentle movements of the ocean waves or security guards, thinking too hard bout too many things to do anything else.” 

Lemony Snicket

“When you change the way you think about a situation, everything connected to that situation will change.” 

Rhonda Byrne

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) 

What are some famous mental models?

There are many well-known mental models that come from or are used in a wide range of disciplines. Each mental model includes its own set of criteria, rules, and even instructions you need to follow. 

Below we share some of the most useful mental models separated by industry:

General Thinking Concepts

  • The Map is Not the Territory
  • First Principles Thinking
  • Circle of Competence
  • Thought Experiment
  • Bayesian Updating
  • Probabilistic Thinking
  • Inversion
  • Occam’s Razor
  • Hanlon’s Razor

Physics and Chemistry

  • Relativity
  • Velocity
  • Inertia
  • Thermodynamics
  • Friction and Viscosity
  • Reciprocity
  • Leverage
  • Activation Energy
  • Catalysts
  • Alloying


  • Evolution Part One: Natural Selection and Extinction
  • Evolution Part Two: Adaptation and The Red Queen Effect 
  • Ecosystems
  • Niches
  • Self-Preservation 
  • Replication
  • Cooperation 
  • Hierarchical Organization
  • Incentives
  • Tendency to Minimize Energy Output (Mental & Physical)


  • Feedback Loops 
  • Bottlenecks and Constraints
  • Homeostasis and Equilibrium
  • Scale
  • Law of Diminishing Returns
  • Churn
  • Preferential Attachment (Cumulative Advantage)
  • Irreducibility 
  • Margin of Safety and Backup Systems
  • Algorithms
  • Criticality
  • Emergence


  • Distributions
  • Randomness
  • Algebraic Equivalence
  • Law of Large Numbers
  • Multiplying by Zero
  • Regression to the Mean
  • Surface Area
  • Global and Local Maxima
  • Compounding


  • Opportunity Costs
  • Creative Destruction
  • Specialization (Pin Factory)
  • Comparative Advantage
  • Seizing the Middle
  • Trademarks, Patents, and Copyrights
  • Double-Entry Bookkeeping
  • Utility (Marginal, Diminishing, Increasing)
  • Bribery
  • Mr. Market
  • Arbitrage
  • Supply and Demand
  • Scarcity

Human Nature and Judgment

  • Trust
  • Bias from Incentives
  • Pavlovian Association
  • Tendency to Feel Envy & Jealousy
  • Availability Heuristic
    • Failure to Account for Base Rates
    • Tendency to Stereotype 
    • Failure to See False Conjunctions
  • Representativeness Heuristic
  • Tendency to Distort Due to Liking/Loving 
  •  Disliking/Hating
  • Denial 
  • Social Proof 
  • First-Conclusion Bias
  • Narrative Instinct
  • Tendency to Overgeneralize from Small Samples
  • Curiosity Instinct
  • Language Instinct
  • Relative Satisfaction/Misery Tendencies
  • Commitment & Consistency Bias
  •  Hindsight Bias
  • Sensitivity to Fairness
  • Influence of Stress
  • Tendency to Overestimate Consistency of Behavior 
  • Survivorship Bias
  • Falsification / Confirmation Bias
  • Tendency to Want to Do Something (Fight/Flight, Intervention, Demonstration of Value, etc.)

Military and War

  • Seeing the Front
  • Two-Front War
  • Counterinsurgency
  • Mutually Assured Destruction
  • Asymmetric Warfare

Let us know whether you heard about these mental models (or at least some of them), or if you want to share one we’ve missed. We’d love to know which mental models you’ve used and what you think of them. 

Why does it seem challenging to apply mental models in real life? 

Each one of us has a different experience when it comes to using various mental models. So, what may be a challenging experience for some, may come easy for others. 

It all depends on:

  • how comfortable we are with the mental model(s) being used;
  • how much we truly understand each aspect of the model(s);
  • our previous experience with using it/ them, and how suitable they are for different contexts; 
  • whether we know how to apply the model properly or not, and so on. 

That said, not all mental models are adaptable to real life, and that’s okay. Many mental models exist specifically as a part of industries and fields that you may be unfamiliar with. That’s why understanding them or applying them to a different context would be a challenge.

How did mental models become so popular?

When we talk about the popularity of mental models, we certainly don’t think of them being popular in the sense of being mainstream. That said, mental models have always been “popular” because we start using them the day we are born. 

We use them because we’re trying to make sense of the world around us, so our brains are even naturally wired to create such models in order to facilitate our comprehension of the other.

But when it comes to mental models becoming popular, there are a few things at play. 

First, figures such as Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger openly talk about the mental models they use. More specifically, they talk about the “Circle of Competence” model and how it can be applied in all areas of life. 

And then, we can’t forget about the existence of the internet. The internet has made everything much more available than it was in the past So, it’s very easy to find simple models and their explanations nowadays - you can just Google it instead of going to a library!

Suggestions for Further Reading 

Deep thinkers are said to think about their thinking process. They also write about their thinking process, as well as engage in discussions with other deep thinkers like themselves. Here at Skillsprout, we believe in the power of reading about your thinking process.

Reading is truly one of the most beneficial activities you can engage in, and it’s especially useful for learning the theory of how things work - like your mind.

So, here are our suggestions regarding books that deal with mental models and the thinking process: 

  1. The Great Mental Models Volume 1: General Thinking Concepts, by Rhiannon Beaubien and Shane Parrish
  1. Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann
  1. Mental Models: 30 Thinking Tools that Separate the Average From the Exceptional. Improved Decision-Making, Logical Analysis, and Problem-Solving, by Peter Hollins
  1. Mental Models and the Mind: Current Developments in Cognitive Psychology, Neuroscience and Philosophy of Mind, edited by Carsten Held, Markus Knauff, Gottfried Vosgerau
  1. Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts, by Annie Duke
  1. Mental Models: 16 Versatile Thinking Tools for Complex Situations: Better Decisions, Clearer Thinking, and Greater Self-Awareness, by Peter Hollins
  1. The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions, by Rolf Dobelli 
  1. Mental Models: 30 Tools To Master Logic And Productivity, by Kevin Wagonfoot
  1. The Model Thinker: What You Need to Know to Make Data Work for You, by Scott E. Page
  1. Mental Models: The Super Guide to Improve Decision Making, Problem Solving and Logical Analysis. Advanced Learning Guide to Critical Thinking. The Art of Clear Thinking., by Tim Stoic 
  1. Mental Models: A Collection of Thinking Tools Helping You To Manage Productivity, Thinking in Systems, to Improve Your Day-To-Day Decision-Making, Problem-Solving and Logical Analysis Skills, by David Drive 
  1. Mental Models: How to Improve Your Life, Make Better Decisions, and Avoid Cognitive Biases with Strategic Thinking and Mental Models, by Dave Thorniley 

Final Thoughts

All in all, mental models are an inevitable part of our lives. Even when we aren’t consciously aware of our thinking process and the factors affecting it, we’re still using a model we’re comfortable with. 

That said, there’s always room for expansion and for adopting new models and ways of thinking. As Buckminster put it, “If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don't bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking”. 

While we may not have a completely new mental model for you (who knows, we may have one in the future), we do have a very detailed course on mental models which can take your understanding of mental models to the next level. 

We cover lots of important topics, such as:

  • the circle of competence; 
  • the importance of thought experiments; 
  • probabilistic thinking and Bayesian updating;
  • first principles thinking;
  • second-order thinking, and so on. 

So, definitely consider joining us if you’re looking to revolutionize your thinking and boost your mental horsepower! Anyway, if you're reading this article, you’re already a deep thinker. 

Why not be an even deeper one?