The Mental Model that Debunks 95% of Business and Personal Development Advice

We consume more information than ever before. Our brains can’t possibly process everything perfectly. Nor do we need to in order to survive.

Instead of analyzing every piece of information that comes our way, our brains use shortcuts.

Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik proposed the theory that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events, reason, and explain.

Philip Johnson-Laird and Ruth M.J. Byrne developed a theory which makes the assumption that reasoning depends, not on logic, but on mental models.

Models are simplified representations of reality. A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works. It’s a concept you can use to explain and understand many different aspects of the world around you.

Each mental model offers a different framework to analyze problems and situations. When your set of mental models is limited, so is your potential for understanding. For example, if you think reason explains all of human behavior, you would be unable to understand a vast majority of behavior. If you acquire a larger set of mental models, you improve your ability to solve problems because you’ll have more options for reaching the right explanation.

However, even the best models of the world are imperfect. Therefore, it’s more practical to focus on whether something can be applied to everyday life in a useful manner rather than debating endlessly if an answer is correct in all cases.

George Box, a mathematician and professor of statistics, stated: “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”. They can be inaccurate because they are simplifications but they can still be useful because we can still learn from them.

As Yuval Noah Harari puts it, “Scientists generally agree that no theory is 100 percent correct. Thus, the real test of knowledge is not truth, but utility.”

In short, mental models are useful in trying to make sense of things. They’re not always perfectly accurate. However we don’t always need perfect accuracy.

In this article, I’ll cover one mental model that I’ve found particularly useful — “Explained by Marketing” — and how it debunks some of the most widely held business and personal development advice and marketing messages.

Explained by Marketing

Explained by Marketing is a mental model you can apply to determine if a strategy, recommendation or marketing message is valid. To apply the model to information you’ve received, ask yourself, “could that be explained by marketing?” More specifically, was that recommendation made because the message receiver has incentive to believe it, or because the messenger has an incentive to purvey it?

What makes a message marketable?

Before diving in to what can make a message more marketable in spite of reason (and then into common myths that can be debunked through this mental model), it’s important to note that a truly valuable offer can be marketable. Just because something is marketable doesn’t mean it can’t be true. Nonetheless, there are a few factors that can contribute to a information being likely to be “explained by marketing.” At a high level, there are two…

  1. The messenger (or marketer) has an incentive for you to believe the message is true or that the alternative is false.
  2. The message receiver has incentive to believe that the message is true or that the alternative is false.

What incentives?

What might cause the marketing message receiver to be incentivized to believe it’s true? What might cause the marketing message receiver to believe the alternative solution is false? The answer is in many of the same factors that help us survive and reproduce: money, conformity, self-esteem, social status, ease, etc.

As humans, we don’t like to work. We want to be thin, but we also want to eat Twinkies. We also want to maintain our jobs and relationships and further grow our wealth and power.

In short, people want to avoid pain and move towards pleasure.

Therefore, if something is simple but hard, it’s less marketable. If something is easier, it’s generally more marketable, even if it’s more expensive or more complex.

What about cognitive dissonance?

Nat Eliason attributes the process by which something that’s simple but hard becomes complex to cognitive dissonance:

1. Problems start by having a simple solution that’s easy to execute, or a simple solution that’s hard to execute.
2. Our frustration with following through on the simple solution causes us to challenge or ditch it, leading us to imagine more complex solutions.
3. We buy things that promise to address the complexity and make it easy again.

Simple here means straightforward and containing few steps or moving pieces. Hard means it requires discipline, time or effort.

When something doesn’t go the way we want our expect, we tell ourselves a story to explain it away, even though the failure may have come from randomness or not trying hard enough.

Learn More: Cognitive Dissonance: What Happens When Reality Trumps Perception

With this understanding of what makes a message marketable and what kinds of incentives play a role for both the marketer and receiver, you can start to see how several common business and personal development strategies can be debunked as a result of applying the Explained by Marketing mental model.

12 Myths Debunked


As it turns out, recognizing the human desire to avoid pain, seek pleasure, survive and reproduce is a fantastic way to make money. Let’s apply what we know about what can make something more marketable — or an alternative less marketable — to some the largest industries in the world.

1. Find Your Passion

It would be difficult for someone to accept that the reason they’re not successful is because of their own abilities and decisions. Instead, cognitive dissonance kicks in and we look for an alternative explanation. “Find your passion” fills the gap. It reassures us that the reason we’re not successful is not our own doing, but rather, because we haven’t found our passion yet. In addition, making money doing what we’re passionate sounds like a lot of fun.

“Just work hard” is advice that is far harder to actually execute on — and “you don’t need to be the best at anything in order to be happy” is harder to understand.

2. Search Engine Optimization

If SEO gurus make SEO hard to understand, people will be more compelled to hire the messenger for SEO services.

In reality, SEO best practices can be understood simply by understanding what service Google provides to it’s searchers: It gives them the most relevant and valuable results per the query. Google has some of the most talented people in the world working on its algorithm to deliver that value.

So, SEO is not really about the “hacks” you read about in an “ultimate guide,” it’s about actually being the best and most relevant search result.

However, actually being the best result is not so easy. That may explain why so many people choose to focus on social media marketing instead.

3. Lather, Rinse, Repeat

Lather, rinse, repeat is an old adage used by shampoo companies. If taken literally, it would result in an endless loop until one runs out of shampoo and needs to buy more. Clearly here the messenger, shampoo marketers, have incentive for the message to be true.

4. The 10,000 Hour Rule

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell put fourth his 10,000 Hour Rule theory…

“the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.”

Although Gladwell actually intended to make the case that being born into circumstances that enabled someone to practice for 10,000 hours was what contributed to success, the interpretation that it was the practice itself was far more marketable and has since been espoused by numerous personal development gurus.

The 10,000 Hour Rule is irresistibly appealing. It satisfies the human desire to reduce uncertainty: “just put 10,000 hours of practice at anything, and you will become a master.” And it presents an easier, although more complex solution to the alternative: be talented and work hard.

5. Goal Setting

It feels good to set goals. It gives us hope for the future. It makes us feel responsible for planning ahead. It gives us a clear path forward. And It doesn’t actually require the hard work of executing. Actually getting shit done is much harder than setting goals.

Conversely, an alternative, systems thinking, is a harder concept to understand and requires accepting some degree of uncertainty. That’s not a great incentive to accept it.

6. Progressive Government Policies

Generally speaking, “progressive” government policies entail taxing a portion of the population in order to give free stuff to a different portion of the population. Examples include Obamacare, public education and more.

The free stuff-receiving voters have incentive to be in favor of such policies because they receive the benefits. And politicians have incentive to propose them because they can receive votes from such benefit receivers.

Supporting such proposals provides the added incentive of positive feedback on the bounds of being empathetic and giving. While opposing such proposals, or suggesting alternatives, provides the added negative incentive of criticism on the bounds of being anti-education, cheap or un-empathetic.

Again, applying the Explained by Marketing model doesn’t necessarily mean that such policies are bad — it’s just another way to think about them.

7. Student Loan Forgiveness

Failure can be the cause of cognitive dissonance. Considering that after 12 years of public school, many people can barely earn a minimum wage, one could begin to think that public education hasn’t lived up to expectations. One could accept that public school has fallen short, but that would require admitting a mistake. It’s more marketable to make the solution more complex instead. In this case, by increasing the scope of government funded education.

Yet getting a job is pretty straightforward: learn a skill that’s valuable to someone and provide it as a service to them. But both learning a skills that’s valuable and executing on providing a service to someone is hard.

These factors can help determine not only why we decide to go to college, but also what we choose to major in, as well as more recent public policies proposed as solutions.

Many of us, myself included, bought a college degree that turned out to not have as much value as the cost. Now, many are crippled with student loan debt and unable to land the jobs we’d hoped for.

Policies proposed to relieve graduates of student loan debt have been widely supported. Such proposals essentially come with the message, “you didn’t make a mistake. It’s the economy or the greedy bankers or big corporations. We’ll dig you out of your financial hole.” Pretty marketable, right?

If we didn’t support such proposals, we’d all have to accept the repercussions of our decisions, which would not be nearly as fun, and we’d still have mounds of debt. In addition, supporting such proposals comes with the added benefit of being in conformity with a large group of people, which makes it a lot easier to do. Meanwhile, opponents of such proposals have been criticized for being anti-education or anti-financial freedom. It wouldn’t be as much fun to be on the receiving end of such criticism.

8. Liposuction, six-minute abs, etc.

The simple but hard solution to losing weight is to eat healthy food and exercise. Although more complex and expensive, solutions such as plastic surgery and gimmicky diet and exercise routines provide us with an easier alternative.

9. Branding

It’s fun to brainstorm about branding. It also lets us postpone getting feedback on our product’s value proposition, or gives us a reason why our product isn’t selling (“it couldn’t be our product or operational execution”).

Yes, branding can and does help many companies succeed. However you also need a good product and effective customer acquisition strategies.

10. Pills

To reduce the quantity of the inevitable backlash I will receive from this section, let me state two things clearly: many medical conditions do require medicine — and I am not a doctor. Again, mental models are not perfect 100% of the time, however they can be a helpful tool for understanding the world around us. Let’s see what it says about the massive and growing pharmaceutical industry.

Pills for sleep, anxiety, depression, and more come with a very marketable message: “Don’t worry about eating better, exercising, sleeping better or removing toxic people from your life — just take a pill and fade your problems away.”

11. Inbound Marketing

Examining inbound marketing helps to illustrate that mental models are not perfect 100% of the time. The gospel of inbound marketing has many of the factors that would enable the Explained by Marketing model to debunk it. However, having actually achieved success with inbound marketing personally, I know that it is not a total myth. None the less, let’s walk through how Explained by Marketing could debunk it.

Again, failing can be the first step towards step towards a message becoming more marketable. Maybe a business failed doing direct sales or other marketing strategies due to poor execution…or simply due to a shitty product. Accepting that the team is underperforming, or that the product doesn’t have enough commercial potential, would be demoralizing. So cognitive dissonance kicks in and we look for an alternative explanation: the strategy wasn’t right. Then, we turn to inbound marketing, which promises to bring customers to you instead of you having to do the hard work of going to customers.

12. Sugar

Until very recently, “fat is bad” has been widely accepted nutrition advice. What does the Explained by Marketing mental model have to say about this?

For starters, most people simply prefer the taste of foods high in sugar to foods that are not high in sugar. “Reduce fat intake” provided a less effective (for most people), but easier solution to giving up sugar. And big food corporations pedaling sugary foods have every incentive for you to believe it’s a good strategy.

Conclusion

Like all mental models, “Explained by Marketing” is not always 100% valid. However it provides a helpful lense for understanding the world around us.

Knowing what causes cognitive dissonance and how our minds respond accordingly, as well as basic human motivations, the above messages fit right in. They play to our reluctance to blame ourselves or put in hard work. No one makes money if you knew, or were willing and able to execute on, the truth.

Does this mean that marketing or capitalism is evil? No. I am a marketer and a capitalist. As I’ve said, many messages and products are truly valuable. And just because something can be explained by marketing doesn’t mean it’s false. It’s just something to be aware of.

Next time something seems strange, try the Explained by Marketing model on for size.

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