Faulty Mental Models

We talk a lot about what mental models work. But what about which ones don’t?

[You can listen to this article here]

I think both examples and counterexamples can help us a lot when learning a concept. That way we cannot just learn what to do, but what not to do — it gives us a more narrow set of frameworks to operate in. When I think of what mental models don’t work, three come to mind.

Fixed Mindset

Duh. I talk a lot about the importance of mindset on this blog, so it’s natural for the first thing I mention here to be poor mindset, more specifically fixed mindset. Fixed mindset is a poor mental model because it causes your motivation to diminish while giving you bad reasons to stop pursuing something. A better mental model is the growth mindset, which helps to keep motivation up on most things as well as reducing demoralization when stopping things that aren’t working.

Giving the Blame

This one is a little bit tricky. I’ve seen this described as a good mental model in some places, with the argument that taking the blame on things too much causes you to lose reputation. The argument for taking the blame is more moral, saying that “it’s what a good leader ought to do”. The reason I think giving the blame is a bad idea is not just for moral reasons, but practical ones as well — people who you assign the blame to will no longer want to work with you. You do it long enough, and you’re gonna run out of people to work with. The way I answer this model is this: When the stakes are small, take the blame. When the stakes are large, hide the blame — regardless of who did it. 

Cognitive Dissonance

This is my last one (for now) and is probably the one that trips people up the most: that is, how to handle cognitive dissonance. If you have two conflicting ideas in your head, the logical, good mental model is to take the one that’s the most rational. That’s a lot easier in theory than in practice. So, let’s focus on the faulty mental model instead — hopefully that will clear things up for us. The faulty mental model is to immediately shut out the new idea and keep the old one, without considering the new idea. If we just focus some time on weighing each idea individually, we can more easily reach the solid mental model of picking the rational idea.

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