The Mental Model Definition

The Mental Model Definition 2min read

Man seeks for himself a simplified and lucid image of the world. – Albert Einstein

Mental models simplify the world around us so we can make sense of our surroundings. They are an abstraction of reality, a simplification of an incomprehensibly world so our limited cognitive capabilities can process all our inputs without overload.

I wanted to explore and better understand mental models and what better way to understand a topic then to try to explain it to someone else. So I sat down and wrote this blog post.

Mental models are a set of tools (maps) our brains use to think and make decisions. A personal algorithm to process and make sense of the world around us. We use them to predict the results of our actions or those of others. Since they are a simplifications they don't always hold true for all situations, contexts or moments in time. Because they represent (model) what is explicitly true, but not what is explicitly false. The world around us is continually changing, so should our mental models.

We form Mental models either through direct, or shared experiences. We can see them in our and societies prejudices, beliefs, folklore and proverbs.

Why do people with more experience get the job? Because they have more mental models to guide them. When your set of mental models is limited, so is your potential for finding a solution. The decision maker without a mental model to apply is overwhelmed [1], we cannot function without them. We abstract away complexity and understanding when we hire a plumber, visit a doctor or engage a lawyer. Why? Because it would take a long time to learn all the knowledge and skills needed to be plumber, doctor and lawyer.

The image of the world around us, which we carry in our head, is just a model. Nobody in his head imagines all the world, government[s] or [countries]. He has only selected concepts, and relationships between them, and uses those to represent the real system. – Jay Wright Forrester

Over at Creative Advantage they list four general problems with mental models:

  • First, they could be wrong because they are limited by the simplifications that made them useful
  • Second, they could be improperly used
  • Third, they could lead to wrong answers if fed by incorrect information
  • Fourth, their effectiveness is rarely assessed.

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. – Abraham Maslow

The more you master a single mental model, the more likely this mental model will be your downfall. Knowledge is about connections, connections between mental models. Wisdom is the application of that knowledge.


  1. Mental Model ↩︎

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