A Simplistic explanation to Mental Models

A few months ago owing to the immense hype and glorification of mental models, in no small part through Elon Musk, I was finally introduced to the idea of Mental Models.

Having read through countless “What exactly is a Mental Model?” posts, exploring several mental models, I’ve come to realise that I just found out the name to a concept probably everyone used since they were a young kid. So, I wanted to try explaining mental models in an easier to grasp way. Let’s begin!


Say, I want to know the answer to what is a dog?

According to Wikipedia,

The domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris when considered a subspecies of the gray wolf or Canis familiaris when considered a distinct species) is a member of the genus Canis (canines), which forms part of the wolf-like canids, and is the most widely abundant terrestrial carnivore.

Alternatively,

Photo by Anoir Chafik on Unsplash

Does that make more sense? Why am I showing you a dog? Bear with me. Or Dog with me, if you can.

Say, I want to know the answer to What is a Mental Model?

According to Wikipedia,

A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person’s intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behaviour and set an approach to solving problems (similar to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks.

While this might make perfect sense to someone who already understands Mental Models, I think it’s just easier to show you. Since I don’t have an accurate picture of “thoughts”, let me paint one for you with my words.

The Map isn’t the territory

What’s the map here? Think Google Maps. A representation of the roads that exist. This is just one example of the possible maps we could create! Another, is the world map we are so accustomed to; or the globe.

The territory? The territory is the actual ground. The earth.

Each map serves a definitive purpose. It answers questions of a specific kind. The globe probably isn’t the best map to use to figure out how to get from Menlo Park, CA to Mountain View, CA. Similarly, Google Maps probably isn’t the best map to use to figure out the number of trees on the street I live.

But, for their specific purpose, they work wonders by filtering out all the unnecessary information. Google Maps doesn’t need the information about the number of trees on a street. What it does need to know is the house numbers of each house on that street.

At the same time, note that the earth, the territory has all this information. It just isn’t very feasible to keep all this information in memory for a specific purpose.

This map that we’ve built to streamline the sea of information present in the territory is exactly what’s called a Mental Model. The territory is our life, every moment we have experienced since birth. Like playing with dogs till you were about 5 years old and not knowing what they are called, we have been looking at mental models all our life and not realising that they were, in fact mental models.

A definitive example of a mental model is the previous heading. The Map isn’t the Territory. The explanations of what the map and the territory are probably made that clear. This might not be so obvious with places where we aren’t just talking about maps as the globe or Google Maps, but something more abstract. A good explanation of this mental model is here.

Since mental models are maps themselves, this mental model, “The Map isn’t the Territory” applies to all mental models as well. In other words, “All mental models are wrong, but some are useful.” Getting too meta? Let’s switch gears.

All Mental Models are wrong, but some are useful

Like we’ve discussed already, they are useful for one very specific purpose. Now, it’s up to you to use the correct mental model in the correct place. For people who are unable to do that, we have the aphormism, “To someone with just a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” What? A hammer? Are we equating mental models to tools now? Yes, that’s exactly what they are. Tools to build up your thinking. Tools to help you understand the world. Tools to help you condense the immense amount of information you come into contact with everyday. Tools to teach you to what cues to look for while dealing with specific problems.

Now, this puts you in an unique position of opportunity. The more tools you’re able to add to your repertoire and get proficient with, the more diverse problems you’d be able to tackle. How to go about that? That’s a lifelong journey, I’m afraid. I’ve shared some resources in the end which serve as great starting points!

I think there are 2 kinds of people ( another one of my mental models to explain the world),

One, who’d be excited to read this and ready to dig into the world of Mental Models.

Two, who’d be overwhelmed by the sheer monstrosity of the task at hand, and procrastinate till the end of time.

For the second kind, I hope these words by Charlie Munger, the legendary investor help you out.

“ 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”

Excerpt from Mungers’ speech in 1994.

Before you dive into all the mental models presented below, which are pretty useful and not so obvious, I want to build up your intuition over Mental Models. These examples you generally wouldn’t find in any mental model list, simply because they aren’t great models. Why am I going over them now then? Because they are extremely relatable and reinforce the idea that this isn’t something new. Going back to the tools analogy, our existing models are like using tools from the stone age, when we could be using tools from the modern industrial age.

Stone Age tools -Photo source

Yes, that’s ↑ what you’ve been using when you could have been using this ↓

Photo by el alce web on Unsplash

Here goes, the bad mental model list

  • Being a nice guy should get me all the girls I want

Remember how we said all models are wrong? Turns out, this one isn’t very useful either. However, it might still work in some cases, it really depends on the girl now, doesn’t it?

Brace yourself, for here come some Racist models

  • Canadians are very kind
  • Americans make for obnoxious tourists (as seen in quite a few movies)
  • A more local example, South-Delhi girls are “extra”

If this is relatable, it simply means we’ve come to adopt the exact same mental models. How did this come to be is a deep discussion I’ll save for another time.

Coming back to the dogs, if I now show you this picture, would you say it’s a dog?

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

No, right? Why is that? Because you’ve gained enough experience, seen enough dogs to know what separates them from any other animal. In effect, you’ve answered, what a dog is not.

Similarly, the next question for us is, what a mental model is not? This, I’ll save for another post.



This is my debut on Medium. I’ve been a consumer for a few years and finally decided to enter the producer side. Let’s see where this goes.
Your thoughts on this post are very welcome! Think there’s another way to explain this? Do you know of some more bad mental models? Let me know below :)