Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about mental models and how we can use these mental models to improve our thinking and our happiness. This essay looks to push back on this desire to come up with mental models by arguing that at the end of the day mental models are useful but imperfect tool to represent what ultimately matters – reality. The objective of mental models is to have a better understanding of reality across time and space. Thus, if mental models get in the way of you and reality they are no longer useful.
I started thinking more about this relation between models and reality after reading an article by Charles Chu titled “Mental Models, Dragonfloxes, and How to Think Real Good” .
What is actually a mental model?
Just like Chu argues in his essay before diving into a discussion of mental model let’s come up with definition for what exactly is a mental model. Peter Bevelin’s Seeking Wisdom describes a mental model as:
“A model is an idea that helps us better understand how the world works. Models illustrate consequences and answer questions like ‘why’ and ‘how’. Take the model of social proof as an example. What happens? When people are uncertain they often automatically do what others do without thinking about the correct thing to do. This idea helps explain ‘why’ and predict ‘how’ people are likely to behave in certain situations.”
Now that we have a working definition of mental models let’s see why the can be so useful.
Mental Models as Maps
One of the common analogies used to explain mental models is comparing them to maps. Now just like maps mental models are abstractions of reality. If a map of New York was a perfect replica it would be the actual city of New York. However, we know that is not useful. Maps are useful because they remove unnecessary information and provide meaning to human through symbols and proportions. Thus, mental models, like maps, are useful if they can enhance our navigation of this world.
I think Chu is right when he says that “mental models don’t have to — don’t need to — perfectly represent the world. They just have to be good enough to work.” In other words, we should judge a model by how useful it is, not by how right it is.
The danger of models
Now the purpose of this essay is to highlight the fact that sometimes we take our mental models too far to the point where our models become our reality. Chu brings up Alan Jacobs’ book How to Think as a great example of this. In his book Jacobs argues :
“The most dangerous metaphors for us are the ones that cease to be recognizable as metaphors. For many people the analogy between brain and computer has reached that point: the brain isn’t like a computer, they think, it is a computer. (“A computer made of meat,” some say.) When that happens to us, we are in a bad way, because those screens become permanently implanted, and we lose the ability to redirect our attention toward those elements of reality we have ignored.”
Therefore, we have to be very careful when we come with mental models to help us better understand certain situations. Furthermore, we should actively seek to questions those mental models that are so deeply ingrained in our cortext that they feel like second nature.
In the end, I think it is true that the “map is not the territory”.