Teaching Mental Models

I was recently trying to explain the concept of mental models to my younger brother — how to build them, and how they could be useful. Ironically, I didn’t really have a good idea of how they worked, or how to explain them to someone else, until fairly recently. Maybe I still don’t. But my brother found this explanation useful, and maybe you will too.

The short explanation is: a mental model is an internally-consistent concept that you can wrap your head around used to describe some real-world thing. Models can start out very basic, with just a few obvious components. You can add components to the model as needed (e.g. as you learn more about the real-world thing). Sometimes you’ll realize existing components are actually multiple components (some of which may be reused or overlap with other components), or vice versa. The model should remain internally-consistent as you add or shuffle components though — any one component shouldn’t make another component infeasible or impossible. They also shouldn’t violate laws of physics.

When you come across a new piece of info from the real world:

  • Maybe it fits cleanly into your mental model. Great!
  • Maybe you have to introduce a new component into your mental model, or re-jigger existing ones. Can you do so in a way that keeps the model internally-consistent?
    • For example, I asked my brother to describe a model of a car. He responded with a couple of components — body, wheels, seats, steering, and an engine. I asked how the heat would work, and he was able to infer that you could pass air around the hot (combustion) engine. Therefore, the heating system fits within the model he had. Then I asked how the AC would work, and that took him a bit more thinking to realize that he needed to add a “refrigerator” component to his model, along with an electrical system and some way to drive it from the engine (technically known as an alternator).
  • Maybe you just can’t fit the new info into your model. Then, you have to decide if your model is wrong, or if the info is wrong or you’ve misinterpreted it. The latter is not impossible, although it may or may not be likely.
    • Learning to calibrate this likelihood is a meta-learning skill.

Once you’ve built models, they can take on lives of their own. For example, a mental model could be an archetype of a particular persona — you can literally imagine a character who fits a certain archetype, and then imagine what that character might do1. You could construct additional archetypes of alternative personas for a particular topic, and then put them into a virtual debate. What might each character say? That’s a good way to seed potential ideas for alternative perspectives for a given topic; you can then follow up on those ideas with further real-world research.

  1. Stereotyping is harmful when do for no good reason, but sometimes it’s useful as a starting point.