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Hanlon's Razor

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Description

Hanlon's razor asks for reflection in situations where we perceive behavior to be intentionally malicious. A useful exercise is to rethink the scenario by replacing the malicious intent with reasons such as stupidity, stress or just plain old misunderstanding.

Examples

  • Your five-year old probably isn't making a mess to make your life miserable but rather because they're a toddler.
  • A social networking website probably didn't flag your content out of malice but rather due to a faulty algorithm.

Occam's Razor

When comparing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

Description

Occam's razor originally stated that entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. In other words, don't complicate things when you don't need to. By shaving off unnecessary additions, the resulting explanation tends to be less ambiguous, easier to verify, and just plain simpler. Occam's Razor is often stated when selecting a simple solution over a complex one. Note that this is a slightly stronger form than the principle intended--reality can be complex and there are cases where the simple solution is not correct.

Examples

  • A sore throat during during the winter is probably the result of a cold even though the symptoms match a rare terminal disease on WebMD.
  • The pyramids being built by humans has far less assumptions than the pyramids being built by aliens.

First Principles Reasoning

Break complex problems into foundational elements and use these elements to build your reasoning.

Description

A first principle is a foundational assumption or proposition that cannot be derived from other assumption or propositions. By attempting to break down problems into first principles and re-constructing solutions using these building blocks, you're less likely to be biased by prior assumptions. This in turn can lead to more innovative solutions.

Examples

  • A child repeatedly asking "why?" to answers for an initial question is intuitively thinking in first principles.
  • A company buiding an in-expensive product by investigating ways of using the raw materials firsthand instead of just following existing conventions.

Proximate and Root Causes

Discovering the root cause of an event involves looking deeper than the immediate causes for that event.

Description

A proximate cause is the event most closely associated or immediately responsible to an observed result. This is in contrast to the higher-level root cause. Getting to a root cause often requires a deep dive into the situation using approaches like Socratic questioning or the 5 Whys.

Examples

  • Post-mortem reports for critical failures generally outline proximate causes and how they stem from the root cause. For instance: a website was down due servers running out of disk space which was in turn a result of a bug which in turn was a result of poor testing and so on.
  • A child repeatedly asking "why?" to answers for an initial question is trying to get to the root cause.

Social Proof

We tend to copy the behavior of others, especially during times of uncertainty.

Description

Social proof is a term used to describe our tendency to follow the behavior of others. This tendency is amplified if we are uncertain about the situation. Social proof generally guides us into making fewer mistakes—if many folks are doing something, it’s usually the correct thing to do. However, this “auto-pilot” behavior can be easily exploited to manipulate our decision making process. For instance, to lead us towards a decision that serves someone else's interests or is incorrect. 

Examples

  • Laugh tracks in TV shows and hired clappers in a theater performance can trick us into perceiving the content to be funnier or higher quality than it actually is.
  • Testimonials increase our likelihood of buying a product, especially when they indicate popularity. Terms like “best selling” or “recommended by 9 out of 10 professionals” are marketing applications of social proof.

Survivorship Bias

We tend to focus on things that survived and overlook things that didn't. This can lead to overly optimistic beliefs.

Description

Survivorship bias occurs when we develop a skewed view of situation by concentrating on the people or things that survived. Things that didn't survive lack visibility and are overlooked. A common result of survivorship bias is overly optimistic beliefs. By focusing primarily on the success stories, we fail to fully understand why the "failures" did not survive, often just assuming that it's due to a lack of qualities found in the survivors. Looking for counter examples when deriving patterns from success stories can be a useful exercise in combating survivorship bias.

Examples

  • We often attribute the success of famous entrepreneurs solely to their behavior and overlook things like luck and timing. By ignoring the failed companies that followed similar approaches, we might be overly optimistic about the likelihood of our own entrepreneurial success.
  • It's easy to perceive music from the past as being higher quality than contemporary works. Music from the past, however, has gone through a selection process where higher quality works have survived. With contemporary music, we hear the mediocre along with the good.

Reciprocity

We tend to feel obligated to repay positive actions towards us (e.g. favors, gifts) even if they are unwanted.

Description

Reciprocity refers to a social norm in which we feel a sense of obligation when receiving positive actions towards us. For instance, receiving a favor or gift can trigger feelings of indebtedness to repay the act in someway. While reciprocity allows one to build relationships and exchanges, it can be exploited to gain someone's compliance to a request. This is because feelings of obligation can be felt even when receiving a positive action we do not want.

Examples

  • Before attempting to sell something, a salesperson may give you a small gift (e.g. a pen or a free sample). Even if this gift is unwanted, receiving it can still trigger a need to repay the gift, usually in the form of purchasing whatever is being sold.
  • A common compliance technique is to start by making a large request that's likely to be rejected followed by a second, smaller request. The second request, which is the intended request, is more likely to be accepted as it's seen as a favor.

Hindsight Bias

The feeling that we could have predicted an event after it occurs (i.e. we "knew it all along").

Description

Hindsight bias is the feeling we get when we perceive an event as being predictable, even though there's little evidence to suggest we could have predicted it. Once the event has occurred, it's easy to work backwards and find explanations. While hindsight bias can result in increased confidence and performance, too much can lead to overconfidence and an inability to learn from experience. For instance, by assuming that we could have done better than others after knowing the results of their actions, we lost an opportunity to understand why those actions were made.

Examples

  • In court, judgement of a defendant can be clouded by hindsight bias. The jury, knowing the outcome of the defendant's actions, might feel as if they could have predicted the outcome.
  • We may feel that people in the past were less intelligent or innovative than those of the present without acknowledging that they did not access to present day information. Related: Historian's fallacy and chronological snobbery.

Confirmation Bias

We have a tendency to perceive things in a way that re-enforces or aligns with our preexisting beliefs.

Description

Confirmation bias is a cognitive bias that causes us to see things in a way that confirms our preexisting beliefs. Because it involves selectively collecting and recalling information, the end result is a biased view point. In addition, confirmation bias may also cause us to ignore information that doesn't support our views. Closely related is the feeling of cognitive dissonance, which refers to the discomfort we feel when holding contradictory beliefs.

Examples

  • In social media, we're often shown content that we're more likely to agree with. This amplifies confirmation bias--we only see things consistent with our beliefs resulting a sort of "echo chamber". For more on this, see filter bubbles.
  • Belief in farfetched conspiracy theories can often be a result of confirmation bias. If one tries hard enough, they can find things that seem to support the theory while ignoring the evidence that refutes it.

Scarcity

We tend to place higher value on things that are rare and lower value on things that are abundant. 

Description

Scarcity refers to our tendency to place value on things according to how rare they are. It's often used as a mental shortcut to assess the value of something based on how easy or difficult is it to acquire. Scarcity doesn't just apply to objects--it can also be applied to things like time and information. For instance, we might place high value on spending some time with a busy individual or getting access to confidential information. Since scarcity can increase our desire for something, it's often artificially created to sell something. A good strategy to combat this desire is to remember that scarcity only increases our desire to obtain something and doesn't affect the actual value we'll extract from it.

Examples

  • Sales techniques likes setting deadlines on promotions or indicating that limited quantities are available are designed to drive up scarcity driven desire for the item being sold.
  • When information is censored, we not only feel a stronger desire to know about it and but also tend to be more favorable to it.

Pareto Principle

For many scenarios, 80% of the effects stem from 20% of the causes. This is often referred to as the 80/20 rule.

Description

In 1896, economist Vilfredo Pareto found that 20% or the population in Italy owned 80% of the land. This ratio is commonly cited in wealth distribution (the richest 20% owns the majority of the world's income) and in business management (80% of sales come from 20% of clients). Another application is managing workload--by prioritizing the 20% most important work, we can (at times) gain 80% of the value. Note that while the Pareto principle can be a useful construct in many situations, it's not applicable everywhere. See also: Power Law.

Examples

  • Microsoft once noted that fixing the top 20% of reported bugs would solve 80% of issues and crashes in a system.
  • Many companies find that majority of revenue comes from a small portion of the product. For example, video rental shops in 1988 found that 80% of revenue came from 20% of the titles.

Thought Experiment

We can explore a theory by imagining an experiment for it and thinking through its potential consequences.

Description

A though experiments is a technique used to explore a hypothesis, theory or principle by thinking through what its consequences would be. These experiments are not actually performed and are often impossible to set up. The intent is not to prove something, but rather to explore difficult questions through speculation and logical thinking. Hopefully, the results of this thinking will lead us down interesting paths we might otherwise miss. Some examples are: "What will happen if this event occurs?", "If B happened instead of A, how might things differ?", "If something happens in the future, what might cause it?".

Examples

  • Einstein imagined what would happen if someone chased a light beam and caught up. The results of this thought experiment lead him to special relativity. Note that this experiment was not actually performed and the theory was proven using other empirical means.
  • The trolly problem is a famous thought experiment in the field of ethics. It's often referenced with thinking about the design of self-driving cars.