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Ask HN: Any recommended books on developing mental models?
350 points by febin on Dec 26, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 61 comments

Just started going down this rabbit hole myself. I've noticed to really grasp and develop your own mental models you deeply have to understand a few things first:

1. Human biases: Every mental model is built upon some human bias.

2. How incentives work: Understanding the motivation behind why people do what they do.

3. Mental thought construction: Understanding how the brain gathers, processes and stores information.

4. Biology: How we've evolved (and haven't) from stone age times and how that still influences us today.

This is by no means exhaustive but are just some of the topics I've found most useful. That said, here are the best resources I've found:

- The Art Of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli: Taught me about human biases. Reads like a directory of most biases.

- Influence by Robert Cialdini: Taught me about incentives and a whole lot more.

- Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff: Taught me about mental thought construction.

- Poor Charlie's Almanack by Charles Munger: Taught me about many things but most importantly good decision making.

- Sapiens by Yuval Harari and his course https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLE-kxvSEhkzDEmLQx3RE0...: Taught me about how we've evolved as humans and how we haven't.

- Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman: Taught me more about human biases.

- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely: Taught me more about how and why we make decisions and what good decisions are.

The thing I've really started to notice is it's not enough to know or read about mental models, you have to ruthlessly apply them. This is tough when even knowing about your biases doesn't stop you from still being affected by them.

this is a great list. I would add Hofstadter's Analogy as the fuel and fire of thinking and Chomsky's New horizons in the study of language and mind. they show that language structures are fundamental to consciousness.

Not a book, but I recommend as a starting point the Farnam Street blog: https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/mental-models/

His list of mental models is great, but I suspect that most people (myself included) would get more out of using the list as a means of searching for books (textbooks in particular) that teach you about the list items incidentally as part of a greater framework of knowledge.

The only reason I even recognize many of those items as useful is because I encountered them in university courses.

I second this. The Farnam Blog is a great resource. You can start here to get a flavour of the content and writing style:

* Mental Models: The Best Way to Make Intelligent Decisions (113 Models Explained) - https://www.farnamstreetblog.com/mental-models/

His (scarce) podcasts are also very well done. I used to follow a lot of self improvement podcasts and after having listened a lot in the last 5y, it's one of the few that I still follow and consider relevant.

Have a look at this:

Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful


Gabriel is known for creating the DuckDuckGo search engine.

Best thing for getting stuff into your head: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1250623.How_to_Develop_a... Much like weight lifting, following this book will give you specific memorisation techniques which can be useful, but also results in a general strengthening of memory, even when you don't use any of the exact techniques). It also strengthens your ability to imagine things, and hold those images or arrangements in your head, which is useful for applying mental models you've learnt.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9793361-the-decision-boo... Not the best, and I only really use the first one in the book (Eisenhower Matrix), but I found that alone to be worth the price (you could just google that one though). The rest of it is useful as examples of the wide variety of model types and types of things that can be modelled.

Thinking in Systems: A Primer, is a great book that I highly recommend. It's one of those books that serves as a great introduction to the subject of creating models of systems, and it's neither too long, nor overly specific on any particular subject. By the end of it, you'll know roughly enough to be able to know what you want to know next, in regards to system models. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3828902-thinking-in-syst...

This blog post is more like a reference resource, and I think it's worth looking over and picking out whatever interests you: https://medium.com/@yegg/mental-models-i-find-repeatedly-use...

EDIT: because my formatting was atrocious.

I use deconstruction nearly every day to understand what is happening.


Deconstruction with lit crit is somewhat effective. Deconstruction to develop a mental model is EXTREMELY effective.

How do you distinguish between deconstruction that is accurate vs one that is "useful" but inaccurate?

It seems rather easy to use deconstruction to see things that aren't really there.

Yes, that is an astute observation and the only way you can gauge accuracy is to confirm ground truth some other way.

Try probing the system so that it conforms to your model and revise it when new evidence is apparent.

...and remember to make tests that don't confirm your model. If the set is 2, 4, 8, and your model is "powers of two", then, sure test 16, but also test 1, 3, 6, 0.5, 0.1 (maybe the correct model is "also 2 to the power 0" or "two to any integer, including negatives" or "all even numbers" or "any integer" - or something else).

>confirm ground truth

I'm not a philosopher, but I do enjoy reading and learning about post modernism.

Isn't a large point of this book that you actually can't confirm a "ground truth"?

Yea, but when I use it in practice I have to verify if my assertions are true. So I guess I'm doing "reconstruction" I'm not sure.

An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald Weinberg is a good overview on Systems theory. It covers different approaches to developing a mental model of systems.

It’s been recommended to death on HN, but Sapiens is a really interesting look at the development of humans. It uses a lot of philosophy to explain things.

Sorry in advance for this perhaps stupid question, but:

Which Sapiens exactly do you mean? Is it an article, a book, a documentary movie, a presentation such as a TED talk? Which is the full title?

I suppose you mean the book "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" (ISBN 978-0062316097), but I'm honestly not sure if I guessed correctly.

Yeah, that’s it. OP asked for books, so I figured that would be enough. Sorry for the confusion.

Use Occam's Razor?

Use proper URIs?

(Or in this case: an ISBN, which serves the same purpose. Unambiguous references are no longer an open issue. Open issue are: the lazyness to not use them, and persistent references (until either Bittorrent or IPFS is fully deployed).)

Yeah, I figured you had an axe to grind.

Please don't be rude in comments here, even when someone else had an axe to grind.

Yeah, and moreover, I should have stuck to providing links to some good books, like so many others have kindly done. Next time!

A Mind for Numbers. https://www.amazon.ca/Mind-Numbers-Science-Flunked-Algebra/d...

This was a companion book for a very popular MOOC called "Learning How to Learn".

This gives you insights and practical advice on learning and it works for any subject, not just math & science.

Everything on https://www.lesserwrong.com/ - start with the recommended collections then dive in. Many of the more established texts are available as ebooks if you prefer.

I work in investments, and I make More Than You Know, by Michael Maubossin, required reading. He does an excellent job synthesizing information across fields. I highly recommend it for anybody interested in diving into the field of mental models. It is a book with many citations, so an avid reader will be served well by this book as a launchpad for more learning.


“Thinking in Systems: A Primer” by Dana Meadows. One of the best books for understanding the worlds systems intuitively. Allows you to use a mathematical framework without needing precise numbers to get a model off the ground.

Related to this, "The Systems Thinking Playbook" is an excellent resource for demonstrating applied systems-thinking (and the power of mental-models) in a workshop setting.

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I read it again every now and then. Explains cognitive biases, prospect theory and happiness.


This book was excellent for informing mental models.

I'd also say "How to Solve It" by Polya helps create a good mental model for problem solving that can apply to most any situation that requires structured thinking.

I recommend "The Design of Everyday Things" by Donald A. Norman. It's not necessarily about developing mental models, but more about the fallout of how people can mistakenly use systems if you don't make the mental model of your design intuitive.

What exactly are we all talking about here when we use the phrase "mental models"?

The most memorable use of the phrase to me is Charlie Munger's "Poor Charlie's Almanack". If I recall correctly, whenever he makes a big decision, he runs through a checklist of each of his MMs, to see if that way of thinking gives him any insight into the matter at hand. The key thing, though, is that it isn't just limited to human psychology. He supposedly has a great interest in a whole variety of fields. A Renaissance Man. For example, I recall him using thermodynamics as a metaphor for explaining some seemingly-unrelated topic (e.g. business analysis).

Intuition pumps and other tools for thinking, by Dan dennett.

I've found that mental models -- even very abstract mental models -- are often domain specific, and benefit from domain expertise.

The most general mental models I have seen come from consultants who hop from industry to industry (SWOT for a business, of the BCG matrix) but even they are specific to firms and companies. Broadly speaking, these are often adaptable to any group effort.

There are a lot of books on these mental models or "strategy frameworks"

Poor Charlie's Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin To Munger

I was about to suggest the same books. Seeking Wisdom in particular had a big influence on me.

1. Principles by Ray Dalio


2. Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

Jocko is great. I also really enjoyed "Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual"

I think it's a little more to the point compared to Extreme Ownership.

“The Decison Book: 50 Models for Strategic Thinking”, quick 2-page overview + diagram for each model. Good starting point and you can find other books to deep dive on models that you find useful.


See Arthur Koestler's book "The Ghost in the Machine" published in 1967. Koestler coined the word "holon". A holon is a whole functional and structural unit while at the same time a part of a larger whole, which is itself a part of an even larger whole. Koestler sees life as a hierarchy of holons. For example, a mitochondrion is a structural and functional unit with its own code of instructions while being a part of a cell, which is another holon, which is part of an organism, another holon, which is part of a social group, yet another holon.

It occurred to me that consciousness may also be a hierarchy of holons. A whole can only be known from a "holistic" perspective. Any attempt to reduce it to parts to understand the whole destroys the character of the whole. This may help explain why reductionist science has had little success in explaining consciousness.

While not a book, I have created a very simple program which fetches a random cognitive bias from Wikipedia.

I've set it up on a daily cron and now I receive every day a cognitive bias on my e-mail and read it on breakfast.

So far some biases really stuck with me and I notice myself referring to them every time I'm thinking about something.

With the results I have only for a couple of weeks I'm definitely planning to use it all my life.

Here is the code: https://github.com/zuzuleinen/bibi

Possibly not what you’re looking for, but the Leonardo Da Vinci biography by Isaacson has the clearest example of that I’ve ever seen. Leonardo’s methodology of learning is incredible and inspiring.

Descartes' Regulae (Rules for the Direction of the Mind). There are online copies, but all the ones I have found are incomplete. The best one is in John Cottingham's The Philosophical Writings of Descartes: Volume 1

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rules_for_the_Direction_of_the...

Tren Griffin is a big proponent of Charlie Munger’s use of mental modals.

This post has a good list of models:


Tren’s weekly ‘dozen things I’ve learned from foo’ series is generally high quality.

I like "Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger" https://tinyurl.com/y97dlzr8 and "Art of Decisions: Managing in an Uncertain World" by Chris Blake https://tinyurl.com/ya7lyglr

Check out this biography of Col Boyd (the OODA Loop guy): https://www.amazon.com/Boyd-Fighter-Pilot-Who-Changed/dp/031...

It's a total hagiography with some dubious historical claims, but a fun and interesting read nonetheless.

What makes something feel alive? How do you design it to be so? Christopher Alexander answers in "The Timeless Way of Building":


I enjoyed reading and feel like I got a lot out of Thinking in Systems: A Primer https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Systems-Donella-H-Meadows/dp...

https://www.amazon.com/Mental-Models-Cognitive-Inference-Con... Quite old, but probably the best book about mental models

'Seeking wisdom' by Munger

Mental Models Aligning Design Strategy with Human Behavior by Indi Young is excellent.


Science, strategy and war.

Dives into the thoughts behind John Boyd’s OODA loop. Really good book.

Liminal Thinking by Dave Gray.

This is a good primer https://alistapart.com/article/liminal-thinking

For politics, “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt and “The Dictators Handbook” from Bruce Buena de Mesquita will give you a great basis for understanding political motivations.

Big book of concepts by Gregory Murphy. https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B001KW0APW/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=...

To develop mental models you need to start at the ground floor, with understanding basic human nature.



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