Think better: “mental models”
Maybe you don’t mind, but you make dozens of decisions every day and choosing the right ones can be really difficult. Carl Jacobi, a nineteenth-century German mathematician, suggested to think about a problem from opposite perspectives, in order to discover new solutions and strategies.
The opposite of being “more right” is being “less mistaken” and mental models are the tools that can help you do it. These conceptual schemes come from the most diverse disciplines and take on great value applied in everyday life.
Think of the avoidable error, which in tennis equals a lost point not because of the opponent’s skill, but because the player himself has made a mistake: we must always try not to get in trouble with our own hands; or think of the concept of anti-fragile, so defined by financial analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb: what is “anti-fragile” not only resists impacts, but is improved.
In addition to an anti-fragile financial portfolio, capable of making the best of the market impacts, it is useful to have an anti-fragile thought, that is, to be able to learn from any mistakes.
To make a mistake less, you need to test your assumptions in the real world through a risk elimination process. There is a possibility that some assumptions are unfounded, and that they consequently lead to wrong conclusions.
Let’s take as an example a startup based on the most common assumptions:
- my team can create the product;
- people will want our product;
- our product will generate profit;
- we will be able to beat the competition;
- the market is large enough to consider a long-term business opportunity.
All these claims should be checked before investing in a project that may not achieve the desired success. In the computer sciences this error is called “premature optimization” and involves the improvement of codes and algorithms too early.
Another way to test your assumptions is to make an MVP, minimum valuable product , or your product reduced to its minimum characteristics, but functional, which is tested by the public.
MVP forces you to quickly evaluate your assumptions, which may be too many and too complicated. In this case, you can use the model of the “Occam razor”: cut away everything that is not absolutely necessary!
Look through the eyes of others and grow empathy
We live life looking at reality from our perspective, that is, based on our reference system. If you try to be as objective as possible before making a decision, you need to keep that in mind.
One of the pitfalls of this way of thinking is the “definition”: by presenting an important problem to a colleague or relative, you will probably try to define it in order to make your position more understandable.
In this way, however, you will prevent the listener from giving you his interpretation of the problem. Of course, if your goal is to direct him to give you reason, you will be easily successful, especially if you know how to use the right words and focus on the points that are most important to you.
The pattern of thought that encompasses this type of mental game is called distortion of availability: exposing the situation in a certain way, excluding some information in favor of others and taking care of the order in which the news is reported are just some of the methods used in the communication – especially online.
This model is called the “filter bubble”: Google and Facebook have billions of possible results for your searches, but they will filter those that they think don’t interest you, locking you in a bubble.
By putting together similar bubble filters, you get an “echo chamber”, where the same ideas bounce between various people limited by similar bubbles, who do not notice their limits and rather are led to believe that a large part of the population thinks like them.
Most of the more complex problems require the analysis of the people involved: it is very easy to be mistaken about the motivations of others if it is assumed that everyone follows our same principles.
To really understand people, you need to increase your empathy, and you can do it with some mental models.
For example, in any conflict between two people, there are always two versions of the story. In addition, there is a third story, one that an impartial observer would tell and that anyone engaged in a discussion should try to outline.
But how? Imagine being able to review the recording of the whole scene and, from the outside, try to understand why your rival said and supported certain things. Understanding different points of view, with which you might even disagree is a great example of empathy.
Another way to understand the actions of others is to train your “veil of ignorance”: when you look at a certain situation, try to ignore your role in the world. For example, when discussing public policies regarding immigrants, don’t consider yourself as a free citizen, but keep in mind that you could have been born in a very different place and situation.
Individual choices have global consequences
Our actions always have consequences, very often different from what we would have expected, sometimes completely unwanted. How can you avoid being caught by nasty surprises?
A dangerous pattern is that of the “common goods tragedy”: if someone starts to exploit an asset because he appreciates its convenience, it is very likely that more and more individuals will follow his example, until that same resource no longer gives the initial benefits.
This is just an example of how effects can come from every small individual choice that affect people who are apparently untouched by your action.
To avoid harming the community, you need to try to internalize these consequences. Sometimes it is the government that imposes taxes to make you think about the damage to your habits, such as smoking.
The risk of chasing perfection
It is natural to want more and more, however, getting too much can be counterproductive: eating a slice of cake is not a problem, eating a whole cake yes.
The same happens with the mass of information that submerges us today. Obviously, it is necessary to have some knowledge on the subject before making a decision, but too many indications send our system on tilt if we try to analyze them all.
The perfection is the enemy of good model elaborates on this problem. There is an innate conflict between the desire to make a choice quickly and the need to have enough information to make sure you are choosing well. You can solve this dilemma by dividing decisions between reversible and irreversible. It is right to consult at length about the latter.
It will also be useful to limit the possibilities: the less you have, the faster and easier it will be to choose. A practical way to narrow the list is to split the decision into multiple steps.
The abundance of possibilities can cause anxiety and unhappiness: people tend to focus on what they have given up on, wondering if they could have made a better choice. This mechanism is called the paradox of choice.
Choose what to invest in and do it quickly
You can do anything, but you can’t do them all.
Multi-tasking should always be avoided, at least in the case of activities that deeply engage our brain: concentrating on one complex activity at a time will allow you to get better results and in less time, because you can free your creative thinking in that which is called deep work.
United States President Eisenhower once said, “What is important is rarely urgent, and what is urgent is rarely important.” Based on this claim, Stephen Covey created the Eisenhower Decision Grid, which helps to prioritize personal and professional activities after categorizing them based on urgency and importance.
Once you have selected the activities worthy of your time, you will have to complete them as quickly as possible. One of the most dangerous traps is that of procrastination. Because of the “distortion of the present”, most people try to achieve short-term success and do not focus on the gradual progress of a long-term goal.
Still, the future yourself will scold you for not spending your energy on a project that would have benefited you in the long run. To avoid remorse, commit today to get what you want in the future: take advantage of the habit effect and organize your calendar by setting a day and time for the activity that you would otherwise be led to postpone, but which will allow you to achieve your goal further on.
Another key to optimizing time is to plan work efficiently: Parkinson’s law states that work expands to take up all the time available.
If your priority also has a distant delivery date, nothing prevents you from completing it earlier, so you can spend the rest of the time on the other activities on your list.
Avoid false security and make surveys reliable
Even if all of us are used to appeal to past experiences, avoid giving too much credit to the anecdote security: if your father lived up to eighty years smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, it does not mean that you can reach the same age by acting as he.
Also keep in mind that just because two related events happen in succession does not mean that one is caused by the other: they could be related to a third factor – the confusion factor – or simply have come together by chance.
If in the course of your work you are faced with the need to obtain data through empirical studies, be careful not to alter the results during construction.
There are many possible distortions, and they can also be due to the selection of individuals: depending on the characteristic to be analyzed, it is necessary to recruit people who are united – or diversified – only from that particularity, to avoid that other factors interfere with the experiment.
Before giving complete confidence to the survey results, remember that they may have been influenced by:
- how the questions were asked (do they give indications on the “preferable” answer? are they overloaded?);
- in what order were the questions structured (can the former influence the following?);
- how accurate the memory of respondents was;
- how much difficulty the interviewees could have encountered in giving a numerical vote to their feelings;
- how much the interviewees could have distorted the answers to make a good impression.
Take advantage of the psychology of persuasion
To obtain the most favorable result for you, it is necessary for others to behave as you would like. These subtle – but effective – models, presented by psychologist Robert Cialdini, may come in handy:
- Reciprocity: Waiters who offer something to their customers get a more substantial tip. If anyone does us a favor, we will feel compelled to express our gratitude;
- agree: if you share your opinion on a topic, you will probably agree in the future too;
- appreciate: it is easier to accept advice from someone who has shown our same tastes;
- social support: you will carry out your task more serenely if you see someone else doing it;
- scarcity: the interest in something increases, as its availability decreases;
- authority: there is always the aptitude to follow the indications received from authoritative personalities.
Establish and increase its market power
The mental model of the “sustainable competitive advantage” identifies a series of factors that allow you to obtain a long-term sustainable advantage over the competition.
Economists call it market power, defining it as the ability to raise prices within a specific market without the risk of losing customers. An extreme demonstration of market power is the monopoly: if there is only one retailer of the product you are interested in, either accept the price established by it or give up the product you have always used.
Even a person has his own market power, which can increase with the development of new skills, placing him ahead of workers in the same sector.
Move within your circle of skills, striving to expand it as much as possible thanks to the techniques of mental models. This circle covers the areas of which you have knowledge and experience and within it you can think profitably.
It is your job to delimit this area, in order to be aware of the danger of what is excluded: the economist Warren Buffett wrote: “If we have a strength, it is recognizing when we are working well within our circle of skills and when we get dangerously close to its borders “.