Mental Models

Use Many Models

I recently wrote a post about the idea of narrative— that we make sense of the world through stories, and that the stories we tell ourselves— about about ourself and about the world— are powerful, but sometimes unrecognized.

A related idea is one called “mental models.” This is the idea that a given problem, situation, or scenario can be viewed through multiple lenses. Each of these models, or ways of viewing the problem, will reveal certain insights, and will obscure other things. On an even more basic level, different mental models will ask different questions, and try to reveal fundamentally different truths, about a given issue. Having the ability to view a situation in multiple ways will improve understanding, which in turn allowes us to make better decisions.

Illustrating this with a concrete example might be more useful, so let’s take the problem of substance use and abuse, and see how this idea of applying multiple models might apply.

Medical Model: This is the model that is most applicable to me, and it mostly focused on the treatment of individuals who suffer from substance abuse. Seen through this lens, substance use disorders are chronic (ongoing) relapsing-remitting (gets better and gets worse) disorders. Patients are at risk from a variety of environmental and genetic risk factors. Different substance abuse disorders are amenable to different medication options, and the type of treatment that is most appropriate to an individual patient is based on a series of individual patient factors and preferences. Treatment of these disorders allows individuals who suffer from them to live happy, healthy, meaningful lives.

Moral Issue: Morality tends to focus on questions of right and wrong, and there are many moral dimensions to consider. For example, a moral framework might consider the imperative of treating substance abuse— is it morally acceptable to allow people with a substance abuse disorder to continue to use, or if they can or should be compelled to stop? Morality often leads to people with a substance use disorder being viewed as morally bankrupt, or a “bad person.” Moral questions drive what we, as a society should do about problems of substance abuse: treatment? prison? compassion? punishment?

Physiology: A physiologic lens of substance use is primarily concerned with what the effect of various chemicals have on the human body. What are the impacts on heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, etc.? For example, how does cocaine impact the blood flow through the pulmonary vasculature? What is the impact of alcohol on the liver’s release of glycogen?

Economics: This discipline is fundamentally focused on the allocation of finite resources, and often focuses on how markets operate. So, economics might help us understand how the price of a given drug behaves on the black market, or what the impact of substance use is on an individual’s finances, or on the broader economy. This could also help us understand how treatment resources are allocated, or why certain drugs are cheaper or easier to obtain than others.

Law Enforcement: This is concerned with how existing laws are applied or enforced, and when it comes to substance use, is often focused on how to disrupt criminal networks that supply drugs. Law enforcement is also focused on the criminal impacts of substance use—- for example, petty theft. Law enforcement as a mental model might also focus on drunk driving, for example, where to place drunk driving checkpoints.

Epidemiology: Epidemiology is the study of illness in populations through space and time, so viewing substance use through this lens seeks to understand the population-level impacts of the use of substances. How many people die from cigarettes per year? Where do they live? Is this number more, less, or the same as previous years? How does substance use in location A compare to location B? Why? How many people died of opiate overdoses? Where?

Spiritual: Many people who abuse substances feel, at some point, spiritually cut off and adrift. Viewing substance abuse through a spiritual lens might work on restoring a connection to god, or to a belief system, that has been severed. It could also relate to integration (or re-integration) of someone into a spiritual community.

There are probably another 20 models I could list, and each would offer different insights. The point is not to be comprehensive, but to illustrate the diversity of ways a single issue can be approached.

A famous statistician, George Box, said “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” He was referring to statistical models specifically, but the idea applies broadly. No one mental model, or approach, can fully capture the complexity and nuance of any issue. However, we will have a deeper, fuller understanding if we can easily switch between different ways of viewing things.

This ability to switch between different ways of viewing things is part of cognitive flexibility. Its a crucial skill. Switching between mental models and maintaining cognitive flexibility decreases how much we get “stuck” on viewing things in a certain way— which in turn keeps us open many solutions to our problems. Second, it leads to deeper understanding the world around us, which hopefully allows us to live happier lives.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.” Viewing a problem through different lenses which illustrate different conclusions is not a weakness— it is a sign of intelligence.

I’ll conclude with an exercise that should take you 15-20 minutes. Think about a problem you are wrestling with, or a challenge you are facing. Write it down. It could be anything, from should I retire? to how do I deal with my child’s temper tantrums? to what do I want to plant in my garden this year? Then, write down 10-15 different mental models that you could use to think about this problem. For a silly example, if you trying to decide if you should plant tomatoes this year, you could view this through the lens of water, weather, effort, money, satisfaction, space, your neighborhood, your family, your health, cooking, biodiversity, pests and economics.

Once you’ve done this, spend 60-120 seconds thinking about (or writing notes) about the problem from each of the different perspectives you’ve brainstormed. Lastly, take a moment to reflect on this. How did you understanding change, broaden, or evolve?

Try carrying this idea through the week. When you encounter a problem, remember there are many ways to view it. Each of those perspectives carries with it a different set of concerns and assumptions, and therefore different solutions. Don’t limit yourself.

-Dr. Justin