Mental Models and the Construction of Your Reality

by Stephen Mills on January 20, 2010

Mental Models

A mental model is an internal representation in your mind of some portion of external reality.  I believe there is an objective external reality out there that exists independent of your mind, but you understand it and deal with it through your mental models.  Your mind is a big jumble of these models and some of them undoubtedly conflict with each other.  Your jumble is different than my jumble.

Many of our mental models are learned, probably absorbed from our friends, family, and culture by default.  We are likely born with a tendency to some of them.  For example, it appears babies are born with some rudimentary ideas about the basic physics of objects.  Some of our models are chosen and modified by conscious reasoning.  Whether by default or by conscious selection we have them and we use them.  They rule our lives.

My coworkers hate me and undercut me every chance they get.  I’m ugly.  Once I achieve X, everything will be better.  Money buys freedom.  I need things to be happy.  The universe is benevolent.  Socialism destroys individual incentive.  Objects obey Newton’s laws of physics.  These are all possible mental models by which we attempt to deal with and interpret the world around us.

Why Should I Care About Mental Models?

Here is how Srikumar S. Rao said it in his marvelous book Are You Ready to Succeed? Unconventional Strategies to Achieving Personal Mastery in Business and Life.

“All transformation begins and ends with mental models.  Because these models dictate how you act under different circumstances and how you interpret the events that happen in your life, when you change the model, you change your life.”

When you change the model, you change you life.  That says all I need to know about why I should care.

Mental Models Are Important

The mental models you select to deal with external reality will play a big part in what your reality looks like in the future.  Your decisions and actions accumulate upon each other in a compounding effect.  Those decisions and actions are guided by your mental models.  Therefore selecting the right mental models becomes a critical step in getting what you want out of life.

Are Your Mental Models True?

The problem of course is in determining what that truth is in an absolute sense.  The way you see things is influenced not just by the new data coming in, but also by what’s already inside.  Confirmation bias is a powerful factor even for those of us who are aware of it’s existence.  Once we accept an idea, we tend to hold on to it for dear life.  That fact alone should give us pause on our confidence that we know the “truth”.  There are some incredibly effective and smart people whose mental models differ from mine.  I’m sure that my telling them I have the truth and they don’t is going to motivate them to immediately change to my way of thinking.

Mental Models Should Be Useful

If it is useful, it doesn’t matter whether someone else believes it is true or not.  It may not even really matter whether it is true or not.  What matters is if it enables you to achieve your ends.  For a rationally oriented person like me that’s a hard model to accept, but I believe it to be a key to success in getting what you want.  The value of a mental model ultimately resides in its utility.

Useful Models Will Vary Among Individuals

My genes, my circumstances, my past experiences, my goals, and other factors may impact how well a particular model works for me.  That same model may be more or less useful to you.  What works for one person does not always work for another.  Keep that in mind next time you want to convert someone to your truth and they resist.  Just because it works for you does not mean it will for them.  Maybe it will, but it is certainly not worth getting upset or frustrated about.

You Need to Be Flexible

When a mental model no longer serves your purpose, you need to be willing to modify it or drop it.  You can hold on to your dogmatic truth even while it destroys you.  You can be unhappy, unfulfilled, and frustrated, but you were right and I hope that makes up for it all.  I would have never written or uttered those words ten years ago.  My mental models have changed.

Even moving from context to context you need to be willing to switch mental models if you find it useful.  When a physicist is describing the behavior of quantum particles it may be important that his model include the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.  But when he gets in his car to drive home he needs to be able to reasonably predict both the position and momentum of the cars around him.

Isn’t This All Just Another Mental Model?

Yes it is, but it is one that I find incredibly useful.  I think you will too.

What Mental Models Are Useful?

Srikumar S. Rao in the book I mentioned above believes that a mental model of a benevolent universe is the best general purpose mental model.  It’s hard to argue with that idea because it works for many people.  I can certainly see the point, but that’s a step I can’t take right now.  It would create too much cognitive dissonance.  I prefer a model of an indifferent universe.

In writing this blog I’m sharing with you my opinion of the most useful mental models.  Here are some of my favorites and I hope you enjoy them:

You Cannot Choose the Wrong Path

Redefining Our Ultimate Goals

Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff

Are We Disconnecting From Real Life?

Own Your Circumstances and Stop Being the Victim

Choose well and live well.

What do you think?  Leave a comment and join the conversation.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Amit Sodha - The Power Of Choice January 20, 2010 at 9:24 am

Hi Stephen,

I can understand where you’re coming from with this. I’ll give you an example of one of my own and that’s the model of choice and free will again fate or destiny. I do believe I have a destiny of sorts, I also believe I can choose from moment to moment what actions to take and how to respond to events. I can listen to my destiny, i.e. listen to that calling or that intrinsic voice we all have then make a choice or I just decide and go with it. I say to people that only the past is destiny, the future is as free as I choose it to be.

Some may say my model is contradictory, however, it’s a model and a thought process that has always worked for me.
.-= Amit Sodha – The Power Of Choice´s last blog ..How To Inspire The World In Under 160 Characters =-.


Stephen Mills January 22, 2010 at 7:37 am

Hello Amit, thanks for stopping in. That’s a great way to look at it. And in the end what matters is what works for you. I have to go check out your blog article. I’m curious about how to inspire the world in under 160 characters!


Vin - NaturalBias January 20, 2010 at 9:36 am

Hi Stephen,

I think this is a great way of explaining the power of perception. When you change your model, you change your life, and you can change your model just by changing your thoughts!

I also think it’s a great point that it doesn’t always matter if the model is true or not. Sometimes, belief is all we really need to achieve our goals, and although I think it’s always best to pursue truth, following an incorrect belief often leads to learning and development.
.-= Vin – NaturalBias´s last blog ..Simple Solutions for Lactose Intolerance =-.


Stephen Mills January 22, 2010 at 7:35 am

Hi Vin, I pursue the truth for its own sake. I’m endlessly curious. The point is that that it is not necessarily useful. If view my co-workers or boss as out to get me I may end behaving in a self-defeating manner. Thanks for commenting.


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