Life is just one damn relatedness after another
August 4, 2016 3:43 PM   Subscribe

This exhaustive list of useful mental models from the founder of DuckDuckGo, drawing on Charlie Munger's concept of mental models is well worth exploring. It contains a surprising amount of interesting jumping-off points to rules-of-thumb and insights from various fields, from Hanlon's Razor to the critical concept of BATNA in negotiation; and including such useful startup ideas as technical debt, organizational debt, and hunting elephants or flies.
posted by blahblahblah (20 comments total) 230 users marked this as a favorite
BATNA was a lightbulb moment in my career, where I went from "curmudgeonly agreeing" to "making really fucking cool shit happen"
posted by Annika Cicada at 4:09 PM on August 4, 2016 [12 favorites]

I love these kinds of constructs but it's worth noting that some are domain sensitive. Proximate cause means something different in the law, for instance.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:41 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

One of my favourite mental models is called "dictionary", and it says:

Model: A simplified representation used to explain the workings of a real world system or event.
Mental: Of or relating to the mind or an intellectual process.

From this we can deduce that there are not "tens of thousands" of mental models in the world; there are hundreds of billions, many for each person who has made any attempt, however misguided, to understand the world around them. For instance, my mental model of metafilter involves a blue box on the floor of a closet somewhere in the Midwesterly area of the United States. Some creature named Mathowie comes along and kicks it periodically to keep it running.
posted by sfenders at 4:46 PM on August 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

The Magnificent Model of Management:

1. Remember the Golden Rule.
2. If you want someone to behave in a certain way, then behave that way yourself.
3. Every once in a while say: "I'm sorry, that was my fault."

Mix well to create a workplace of happiness.
posted by storybored at 5:14 PM on August 4, 2016 [11 favorites]

Kind of a mixed bag in a Gladwellian, little-knowledge-is-a-dangerous-think kind of way. Some are tools, some are categories and some are phenomena. Nifty though.

I wish to add "Critical and Creative thinking" to the list for "Brainstorming. Creative thinking can subsume "Lateral" thinking. In fact, it can subsume "brainstorming" - a better category might just be "Thinking skills."
posted by Miko at 5:15 PM on August 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

The "hunting elephants or flies" piece put me in mind of how free-to-play games tend to be supported largely by "whales", players who dump obscene amounts of money into the things. I deliberately chose NOT to chase those when designing the Kickstarter for my latest book. Feels a lot better that way.
posted by egypturnash at 6:16 PM on August 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Successful models reveal...the Matrix!
and @sfenders is a dictionary program
posted by xtian at 7:33 PM on August 4, 2016

I just had a momentary superstition that "mental model" was not, as I normatively believe, a common word-group that anyone interested in thinking would have come across fairly early in the process of learning their English languagizing, but instead an obscure cruft of jargon that I picked to while reading about artificial intelligencing or some such subject. But it was just a paradigm shift, I'm better now.
posted by sfenders at 8:03 PM on August 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like how the article is basically doing philosophy, even if it's just college-educated 21st-century buzzwords, but representing itself as not philosophy, so that its rhetoric is exempt from standards of critical inquiry.
posted by polymodus at 10:28 PM on August 4, 2016 [9 favorites]

I like how the article is basically doing philosophy,

Also: economics. BATNA is a new term for an old concept in bargaining models.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:40 AM on August 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

so that its rhetoric is exempt from standards of critical inquiry

You seem to be managing ok.
posted by brennen at 8:12 AM on August 5, 2016 [5 favorites]

There is a lot of overlap between the first link and this.
posted by All Out of Lulz at 8:57 AM on August 5, 2016

@Annika Cicada: could you please expound on that? This is the first time I've come across the term and it does spark some thinking in my mind ... but I'd be gratefull if you could share some of the things it helped you do and how aand what exactly you mean by "making really fucking cool shit happen"?

Do you mean for yourself? In the workplace? Projects?

To me, you just went very quickly from 'I agreed begrudgingly' and yada-yada-yada'd over to 'and now cool stuff happened', leaving me wondering what you did and what and how do you mean 'cool stuff'?
posted by MacD at 12:08 PM on August 5, 2016 [2 favorites]

Can someone explain the hedgehog and the fox to me? "A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing". What?
posted by kersplunk at 8:07 AM on August 11, 2016

Foxes are clever; hedgehogs are covered in spikes.
posted by brennen at 9:37 AM on August 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

yeah, BATNA (and much of the book that introduced me to it, "Getting to yes") was a shift for me in thinking about negotiations.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:55 AM on August 12, 2016

Can someone explain the hedgehog and the fox to me?

THE FOX AND THE HEDGEHOG: A Fox, in swimming across a rapid river, was swept away by the current and carried a long way downstream in spite of his struggles, until at last, bruised and exhausted, he managed to scramble on to dry ground from a backwater. As he lay there unable to move, a swarm of horseflies settled on him and sucked his blood undisturbed, for he was too weak even to shake them off. A Hedgehog saw him, and asked if he should brush away the flies that were tormenting him; but the Fox replied, "Oh, please, no, not on any account, for these flies have sucked their fill and are taking very little from me now; but, if you drive them off, another swarm of hungry ones will come and suck all the blood I have left, and leave me without a drop in my veins."
posted by sfenders at 7:05 AM on August 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

One interesting twist is to figure out when mental models don't work. Charlie Munger recommended a good practice of questioning models and finding exceptions. e.g. when does the law of supply of demand *not* work? Give three examples.
posted by storybored at 12:36 PM on August 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


You could read the book mentioned above Getting to Yes. A meatier negotiating book is The Heart and Mind of the Negotiator. These were both required texts for my college class on negotiation and conflict management.

The use of BATNA is that it gives you an effective means to measure the value of the proposal on the table. Sometimes, this is a bright line and sometimes it is a little fuzzier, depending upon the variables involved in the scenario.

So, having had that class, one of the things I pulled off was an amicable divorce without lawyers. I think the typical cost of a divorce lawyer in California at that time was something like $20,000 and if we both lawyered up, that was potentially $40,000 (or more! because YMMV!). Forgoing the lawyers and just being 'nice' to my future ex meant that there was about $40,000 more dollars for us to split up.

I mean, we didn't have that kind of money. It would have been a terrible hardship to pay lawyers. I have no idea how we could have done so. But looking at "Eh, he wants some small concession and I can grant that for his convenience and not care too much because he is being generous with child support and alimony OR -- Plan B -- we both lawyer up and fight about every stupid fucking thing in court. I am totally better off say that this small thing is no big deal and you can have your way on this one."

When you know what the alternatives are, it allows you to literally calculate which one make you better off. It means you can make decisions about whether or not to take the deal with confidence because you aren't wondering whether or not it is a good deal. You can determine whether or not it is a good deal, because you know exactly what you will do if the person you are negotiating with is trying to screw you or you just cannot come to terms for some reason. You know under what circumstances it makes sense to just walk away.

So, when they put some crazy sounding idea on the table, you know whether it makes sense to take the deal or say "Oh, hell no, not in a million years! I need X from you or I am out of here!" and mean it. It isn't some "ploy" or "tactic." It isn't a psychological game to manipulate them. It is based on "Yup, I would be a fool to take that because that would suck so much more than what will happen if I don't make any deal with you at all."

/not Annika Cicada and I don't play one on TV.
posted by Michele in California at 2:42 PM on August 12, 2016 [5 favorites]

Modeling (in the sense DuckDuckGo dude uses the term) is a way of paring down insight to gist, in order to apply that gist in different circumstances. A particular sort of mind seems drawn to this sort of thing, but I'm leery.

A lot of Ivy League types seem to get caught up in this sort of abstract, densely reductive meta-jargon. It's a fairly recent, trendy thing. Brainy people used to actually discuss and explain, but now it's like the old joke about the comedian convention, where nobody actually tells jokes, they all just refer to joke numbers. We're in the Age of Intellectual Lozenges.

I'm not saying it's foolish or useless. It's not! But a little goes an awfully long way, and we need to recognize that this sort of thing is absolutely not creative. God bless Charlie Munger and DuckDuckGo guy, but they're not innovative thinkers, just crafty incrementalists.

Boil-downs inevitably shave off essential subtleties. The particulars which get reduced to mere variables by such modeling are the very richness of life. This is cold-blooded stuff, and we shave something off ourselves if we place too much stock in it. Same with the effort to remove all our nonlinearity. Our irrationality (within limits) is a feature, not a bug. I want to argue on behalf of the shaved-off stuff so many smarties these days strive to overcome, ignore, and shortcut. I think it's become unbalanced.

To be sure, such modeling is useful at points of indecision, or as a means of escaping stalls or sidestepping harmful delusions (and I'm not saying the article urges any other use). But they are intellectual prosthetics one straps on to simulate wisdom and creativity*. Better to foster one's actual wisdom and creativity than to memorize the formulae which bluntly simulate them.

* - It reminds me of those idiots who teach screenwriting as a boiled down formulaic process - a trend that coincided with the sharp decline of interest in film, which, unsurprisingly, had grown increasingly formulaic and devoid of epiphany.
posted by Quisp Lover at 2:41 PM on August 20, 2016 [4 favorites]

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