Mental Models Latticework

17 Powerful Mental Models Analyzed

Mental models: what are they?

Mental models are representations of how things work. They can be derived from multiple disciplines, but are able to traverse the boundaries of their field and be be applied more broadly in other contexts. Mental models are ways of understanding the world because they allow us to build a latticework of models to support our reasoning.

Why are they important?

Mental models matter because they help us put disparate facts into perspective and make sense of complex information. Isolated facts are no use to us, that’s way we need a support system to integrate various frameworks of how to think about the world. They help us see a problem from a broader perspective. We can’t grasp all the complexities we see around us without a solid base of models we can come back to.

How to use them

First, it’s important to get accustomed to them, understand their application and where they might be useful to you. Adding new concepts slowly over time, to your toolbox is the best way to build a strong latticework of mental models you can come back to when you’re faced with an important decision or a difficult problem.
Reading this post once won’t help you get there, but coming back to these notions again and again will prime your brain to this way of thinking.
The goal, after all, is to internalize these models, recognize when they appear and act accordingly. This is a lifetime practice but there’s no better time to start than today.


I’ve listed below the ones that I deem to be the most relevant and prevalent. This is in no way an exhaustive list, there are many more that I’ve left out. Over the hundreds of the ones I researched, I chose these as the most fundamental. (I might include more later.) For each, there’s a brief description, the discipline or area it’s related to, when you’re likely to need it and how to avoid it or use it.
The disciplines covered will include Economics, Decision Making, Judgement/Knowledge, Business,  and Psychology.


Analysis Paralysis

Definition: being stuck analyzing all the data or options at your disposal, without acting on it

Discipline: Decision making

When you might find it: In any area of your life where you need to make important decisions and there are too many options or the stakes are too high. It can be as simple as choosing where to eat out or whether or not to sell your company.

How to avoid it: There’s different approaches of how to escape analysis paralysis. The first step is to always be aware you are stuck. If it’s an inconsequential decision (like where you’ll eat tonight), narrow down the options and just commit to one. You can’t do everything so you might just choose one option.
If it’s a bigger decision, then it might help to commit in a small way that does not “lock you in” to your choice. Think something provisional that can help you gather more actionable data.
At the end of the day, not choosing is still a choice.



Definition: a heuristic characterized by an irrational tendency to rely too heavily on a benchmark figure (the anchor) when making a decision. This typically influences our purchasing behavior.

Discipline: Behavioral economics

When you might find it: It’s most prevalent in economic situations. You’ll most likely be influenced by it when making a purchase. If an item is advertised as costing $100, after being reduced from $150, we’re more likely to buy it, than we would be if we didn’t know the initial price.

How to avoid it: Be aware that it’s a powerful tactic used in retail and negotiations and try to not base your decisions solely on it.


Availability Bias

Definition: refers to when our perception is distorted in light of the most recent information that is available to us. We tend to over-rely on the most recent information or the most prominent topic.

Discipline: Behavioral economics

When you might find it: It can be prevalent in our thinking when we assess information in light of the facts that have been presents to us (in the media) or we researched ourselves.

How to avoid it: It’s especially important to make sure you’re not a victim of availability bias when making decisions or drawing conclusions from facts. It’s always best to check that there aren’t pieces of information we’re disregarding, because we’re not aware they exist.


The Bandwagon Effect

Definition: the phenomenon that makes us adopt the social norms or ideas shared by a group, especially when they gained popularity. The more people join, the more will probably follow and it creates a “bandwagon effect.”

Discipline: Psychology

Where you might find it: At the work place or in other social setting where there are certain customs embedded in the “culture” of how things are done.

How to avoid it: Be observant and ask yourself why something is done and whether it is necessary, or it just gained popularity because so many people adopted it. Don’t be afraid to question the status-quo.
That’s why Paradigm Shifts (covered below) are rare.


The Bike Shed Effect

Definition: refers to our tendency to waste time on trivial matters that are easy to solve, instead of tackling the difficult, complex problems head-on

Origin: This mental model got its name from Cyril Parkinson, who detailed it in his book Parkinson’s Law. He got us to imagine a budget committee weighing in on two different matters in their meeting: a nuclear reactor and a bike shed. Because the atomic reactor is a complicated subject, they instead spend all their time discussing the bike shed.

Discipline: Behavioral psychology

Where you might find it: In any circumstance where there’s a number of difficult tasks that need to be done or discussed. Our instinct will be to tackle the easier one and postpone the most important task. You may notice this tendency in how you approach your to-do list or in the order in which matters are discussed in work meetings.

How to avoid it: As with anything, awareness comes first. After we realize we’re spending precious time on menial tasks, we can turn our attention to what really matters. When it comes to of our to-do list, we can clearly specify which task is crucial and put it at the top so we can get to it first. This is also called “eating the frog”, popularized in Brian Tracy’s book. In a work environment, it can help to designate a meeting where the only assignment is to discuss that complex issue everyone is avoiding.


Black Swan Fallacy

Definition: the tendency to believe that things we’ve never witnessed don’t actually exist.

Discipline: Judgement

Where you might find it: In any situation where you’re presented with data that points in a certain direction. Linked to Confirmation bias (covered below.)

How to avoid it: Recognize that just because something has not been observed, does not mean it doesn’t exist.


The Bystander Effect

Definition: postponing to take action when we’re in a public setting because we expect others will act instead

Discipline: Psychology

Where you might find it: In a group setting where you know someone needs to act immediately (help a person, call 911, get outside help) to resolve a conflict. The more people in the group, the less likely any individual will take action.

How to avoid it: When you’re witnessing a crime, it’s helpful to act as if you’re the only person who can help. In this way, you’ll be more compelled to intervene.


Cognitive Dissonance

Definition: the state in which people hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time. It can also apply to acting in a way that is at odds with our self-image. This usually causes some cognitive discomfort.

Discipline: Psychology

Where you might find it: In everyday situations, ranging from mutually exclusive thoughts to contradictory actions. For example, if we regard ourselves as honest, but we just told a lie, this can cause psychological discomfort.

How to avoid it: When you become aware that you hold two mutually exclusive belief in your head, the natural instinct is to push the thoughts away. After all, it’s far from pleasant to discover that you’re inconsistent. The best thing to do, however, is to sit with the discomfort and try to get to the root of the problem. Examine both cases, see where they come from and try to get to a resolution. It might mean discarding an old belief, but this is how we stay consistent and intellectually honest.


Confirmation Bias

Definition: people’s propensity to select and interpret information in a favorable way, which suits what they already happen to believe and disregard whatever clashes with their worldview. It’s related to the Echo Chambers mental model (covered below)

Discipline: Psychology

Where you might find it: In any medium where you’re presented with information. It can be your circle of friends, the news you read, the articles you consume, the scientific papers you study. And of course, social media.

How to avoid it: It’s never easy to scrutinize our beliefs, especially when there’s an emotional connection at their core, or they’re strongly tied to our sense of self/identity. News outlets or social media platforms are not helpful either, because they can aggregate people into echo chambers, feeding them the information they want to read, reinforcing their beliefs, in a vicious cycle. So what are we to do? Refrain from forming strong convictions on incomplete evidence, and if you don’t know whether you have incomplete evidence, the more reason to seek opposing views and analyze the data honestly.


Decision Fatigue

Definition: Mental exhaustion from the number of decisions we have to face daily, which can result in poor choices. Linked to the Paradox of choice (covered below)

Discipline: Decision making

Where you might find it: In everyday life whenever we’re encounter a growing number of decisions (be them big or trivial) that drain us of mental energy and make us respond in detrimental ways, like choosing a less optimal option or even procrastination

How to avoid it: There’s a popular fact about Barack Obama that he decided to only wear blue and grey suits to avoid unnecessary mental fatigue. We can learn from his strategy to minimize the amount of decisions we need to make, or at least streamline the process. Other ways in which we can avoid decision fatigue include: having a set number of options that we just rotate through (for example when it comes to what we eat for breakfast or where we shop), planning in advance so we’re not faced with a large number of options that we have to take into account on the spot.


Eco Chamber/Filter Bubble

Definition: a position in which a person only hears information that reinforces what they already believe. Closely related to the above-mentioned Confirmation bias mental model.

Discipline: Communication

Where you might find it: In all the places information is exchanged, but it’s most likely to be online. It is enabled through the platform’s algorithm, which feeds you news, stories and information based on what you previously liked or consumed. If you’re not careful, you might be caught in a filter bubble that only shows you one perspective on reality, reinforcing your worldview.

How to avoid it: Make sure you consume information from reliable and diverse sources and invite differences of opinion, instead of shutting them away. It’s not an easy task and it all starts with recognizing you are in an echo chamber in the first place.


Goodhart’s Law

Definition: Best explained by the adage “When a measure becomes the target, it ceases to be a good measure.” This quote is attributed to anthropologist Marilyn Strathern.

Origin: This concept is believed to have started from economist Charles Goodhart, who noted that “Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

Discipline: Economics

Where you might find it: In any situation where a system is put in place that rewards certain behaviors/results. A good example is SEO (Search Engine Optimization), the practice of tailoring your content, keywords and overall business approach to please the Search engine’s algorithm, which will result in higher page ranking and implicitly more revenue. The problem with this is that people will finds ways to meet the goals in not-so-ethical ways, even to the detriment of their content or audience.

How to approach it: It’s useful to be aware that when we set metrics that need to be met, people will try to “game the system” to meet that criteria, regardless of whether it is beneficial to the system itself or the underlying goal.



Definition: The tendency of people to converge on a conclusion when they’re thinking together, because disagreeing might start a conflict

Discipline: Psychology

Where you might find it: In meetings, focus groups or any social setting where a difference of opinion might

How to avoid it: It depends on the situation, but usually it’s helpful to inform all the people present that differences of opinion, new perspectives and ideas are welcome and appreciated (hopefully they really are.)


Lindy Effect/Lindy’s Law

Definition: The more a company/concept/service has been around, the more we can expect it to continue to be relevant in the future. If something has lasted for, let’s say, 50 years, we can predict that it will continue for another 50. The concept was popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile.

Discipline: Mathematics

Where you might find it: It applies to non-perishable items, those that don’t have an unavoidable expiration date.

How to use it: You can use this mental model to predict and analyze the influence of certain trends, movements or technologies and estimate how relevant they going be in the future. By observing how long a concept has been around, we can deduct that it has a certain robustness that will probably enable it to stay around even longer.


Pareto principle (80/20 rule)

Definition: 80% of the outputs come from 20% of the inputs

Origin: Vilfredo Pareto, an italian economist, observed at the beginning of the 20th century that 80% of the land in Italy belonged to 20% of the people.

Discipline: Economy

Where you might find it: The Pareto principle is at work in numerous domains. Take business: 80% sales usually come from 20% of customers. Wealth distribution: 80% wealth is owned by 20% of the population.

How to use it: It can be a powerful principle to leverage in any area of your life, as long as you can determine what actions influence which results, and then all you need to do is focus your attention on the most impactful ones.


Paradigm Shift

Definition: When a well-known, influential and largely-believed to be true theory is replaced by a new new one, that offers a more complete and accurate understanding of the world

Discipline: Science

Where you might find it: In science, where progress is not a gradual process, rather a messy journey in which people try to hold on to their way of doing things/worldview, until the evidence is too overwhelming to be ignored, and a shift finally happens. Paradigm shifts have happened many times in history, one classic example being the Aristotelian model of physics that was later replaced by Galileo, which in turn was replaced by Newton.


Paradox of Choice

Definition: The more options are at our disposal, the harder it becomes to make a decision. Having too many options to choose from may seem like a pleasant scenario, but actually this can leave people unhappy, because regrets and anxiety can creep in. The concept is explored in Barry Schwartz’s book The Paradox of Choice

Discipline: Decision-making

Where you might find it: In any situation where you’re confronted with a myriad of choices. You may be surprised to notice that the more options available, the more stressful the decision becomes.

How to approach it: This mental model is closely related to the Analysis paralysis and Decision fatigue ones, this concept can teach us how we respond to choices. It can be helpful when we’re in charge of presenting someone with options to choose from, whether clients or stakeholders, because we’ll know how to eliminate Decision fatigue. It’s all dependent on the situation, but when in doubt, it’s better to stick to less options.

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