Mental Models & Thinking Models

There is a lot of talk about "mental models" these days. I see disparity in how the term is used and defined. I offer this to the already-confusing discussion and debate:

What I see is a commingling with something else that I refer to as thinking models...

Mental models are etched patterns and worldview (often subconscious) that represent how various parts of reality connect, interact, relate, or work together. They are build through experience, exposure, faith, cognitive heuristics, storytelling, schemata, and imagery. We rely upon these models during intuitive, primal responses and reactions...but also arguably during rational, creative decision-making. 

Thinking models are useful tools and frameworks that help us make conscious decisions. Examples: Cynefin; OODA; The Illinois Model; PDCS; SARA; economics theories; generalism vs specialism; systems thinking tools; political theories; geometric/algebraic formulas; risk management models; certain procedures (linear & non-linear); diagnostic flowcharts.


I recently published the above narrative in a LinkedIn post, which got some interesting comments. I tend to agree with most of the comments to that post. Most of them make reference to the levels of consciousness of the mind, or whether intent/purpose is at play.

Mental models are rooted in history to help make sense of the present. Thinking models are for interacting with the present and shaping the future.

US Air Force COL John Boyd (of OODA fame) wrote about mental patterns and concepts in his Destruction & Creation (1976):
Decisions must be rendered to monitor and determine the precise nature of the actions needed that will be compatible with the goal. To make these timely decisions implies that we must be able to form mental concepts of observed reality, as we perceive it, and be able to change these concepts as reality itself appears to change. The concepts can then be used as decision-models for improving our capacity for independent action. Such a demand for decisions that literally impact our survival causes one to wonder: How do we generate or create the mental concepts to support this decision-making activity?
Are these mental concepts that Boyd talks about a collective of both what I've labeled mental models and thinking models? Later in the same paper, Boyd writes that
"...we must find some common qualities, attributes, or operations to link isolated facts, perceptions, ideas, impressions, interactions, observations, etc., together as possible concepts to represent the real world."
... as if a conscious, intentional effort is required to ensure our mental representation are as harmonized as possible with reality (orientation symmetry?).

Shane Parrish over at Farnam Street Blog has a fantastic page on (what he calls) mental models. I appreciate this page, though I wish he'd refer to these as "thinking models" instead. On that page is a quote from Charlie Munger on the so-called latticework of mental models:
“Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience both vicarious and direct on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”
This makes me think about the relationship between (my descriptions of) mental models and thinking models. Let me bounce this around:
Thinking models are tools, maps, gauges, lenses, templates, and instruments that we consciously inspect, question, and arrange our mental models, to ensure that we are seeing what actually is...and to appropriately forecast hypotheses in order to effectively interact with our environment to cause our intentions. 
I think that mental models are somewhat static, in that they have taken years and decades to develop. If not static, surely slow to shift. They are our representations of how the world is. But also maybe how we think the world should be. Mental models might be the clustering of thoughts that determine how we vote, what we think about God, and which flavor ice cream to order when a long line is behind you.

Thinking models are an array of tools assembled for us to grab. They each help in different ways dependent upon what the information calls for. Some are technical and specialized; others are abstract and general. They can be algorithmic or metaphoric. Some are for sense-making. Some are for creating. Some are for predicting. Some are for explaining and communicating. Some are for visualizing. Some are for uncovering tensions. Some are for analyzing. Some are for calculating.

Charlie Munger is most certainly onto something when he talked about the need for a "latticework." It's as if our mental models need to be put through a variety of thinking models in order to ensure the mental models' integrity, accuracy, appropriateness, connectedness, and fidelity.

John Boyd challenges us to change & expand, to unstructure & restructure our mental concepts to cope with our ever-changing environments.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this separation, other than I think the term mental model is being used too broadly, too freely, and with too much crossover into something else.

What do you all think?


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a criminal investigations & intelligence unit supervisor in a suburban Chicago police department. With a passion for training, he studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedInHe also maintains a LinkedIn page for The Illinois Model.


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