Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Ask HN: What books to read on developing mental models and increasing cognition?
133 points by technology on Nov 25, 2011 | hide | past | favorite | 41 comments
Books that might help in these areas:

1) Better Thinking techniques and Systems

2) Overcoming Cognitive Bias

3) Creativity/Innovation

4) Problem Solving/Decision Making

5) Any other similar area in business/life.

For example:

Peter Bevelin - Seeking Wisdom - From Darwin to Munger

The Personal MBA - Josh Kaufman

Charlie Munger - The Psychology of Human Misjudgment

Predictably Irrational - by Dan Ariely

Daniel Kahneman - Thinking, Fast and Slow

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life - Twyla Tharp

Michael Michalko - Creative Thinkering

Thinking in Systems: A Primer - Donella H. Meadows

The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt

How about some books that aren't pop-sci / business books? I am kind of biased, since I love this area of psychology.

- The Sciences of the Artificial by Simon

- The Psychology of Problem Solving by Davidson & Sternberg

- The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (Cambridge Handbooks in Psychology) by Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich & Hoffman

- Minds, Brains and Computers - The Foundations of Cognitive Science: An Anthology (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies)

- Choices, Values, and Frames by Kahneman & Tversky

The Sciences of the Artificial is a small but deep book by Herbert Simon, who is considered a key figure in founding the study of these areas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Simon ).

Davidson & Sternberg focuses on problem solving (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Sternberg ).

The Cambridge Handbooks (there are many others) in particular are excellent as they contain classic articles in Cognitive Science and Psychology, with introductions and overviews by people who actually research this area. The one on Expertise and Expert performance is edited by K. A. Ericsson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/K._Anders_Ericsson )

Minds, Brains and Computers is another collection of classics, from a more model-based perspective.

Finally, Kahneman and Tversky offer a more economics-centric viewpoint. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Kahneman & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amos_Tversky )

If you read scientific articles in this area, you'll notice that many of these author's names will keep popping up...

"The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance" is an awesome read, I recently bought it and started reading it.

Here are some really cool excerpts from the book:



Agreed; being a scientist until finances forced me into a sordid life of programming, the mental models I learned in basic science courses have been invaluable. While it wouldn't hurt you to learn (with the calculus) Newtonian mechanics and 19th century E&M, plus organic chemistry (if you have a talent for the latter), biology is filled to the brim with models that by definition work in the real world and little or no math is required to grok most of them at the general level.

So I recommend a college level general biology textbook, whatever's a current replacement for the classic one by Helena Curtis. Check the 7.01x courses here: http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/biology/ , two of them use the same general text.

The courses say you will need as background high school level biology (that's for sure) and chemistry (you can probably cheat here, I did the first time without difficulty).

Beyond that there's lots more specialized texts that cover areas you find fruitful, from, say, molecular genetics (I don't recommend general genetics (boring and complicated), but the whole DNA->RNA->proteins sorts of things, viri, etc.) to, say, animal and perhaps especially insect behavior.

Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson - http://www.amazon.com/Prometheus-Rising-Robert-Anton-Wilson/...

A proposition offered by Wilson on the nature of the human mind - "Whatever the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves."

"Of course it is fairly easy to see that other peoples minds operate this way; it is comparatively much harder to become aware that one's own mind is working that way also."

Realize that when you think X, all of your successive thoughts attempt to reconcile or solidify the notion of X. In this way, we are the artists of our realities, everyone's reality being different than others since all of it is based on conceptions. Your conceptions and ideas rule you, from who you think you are to what you think the world or your environment is about. It is how you make sense of all sensory data. Not everyone organizes their reality in the same way you do, because they all went through a difficult accumulation of sense data (and subsequent reaction to and organization of said data) throughout their lives to get to where they are.

More: http://deoxy.org/wiki/The_Thinker_and_the_Prover

The question then becomes, can we then transcend our conceptions and perceive reality as it is? We may have to consult the Buddha on this one.

Correction, difficult = different... though the trials of life can be regarded as difficult ;)

find any quarters lately?

I find this comment to be mocking -- there is a wide range of topics that can be discussed regarding Prometheus Rising, but you pick a petty one.

It was meant to be humorous. I enjoyed the book.

Good list. I'd add 'The Checklist Manifesto' by Atul Gawande ( http://www.amazon.com/Checklist-Manifesto-How-Things-Right/d... ), about how experts with decades of experience in highly complex tasks can still benefit from simple, short and obvious checklists.

I read that book, and I think everyone should, but I don't think it falls in the category of developing mental models.

As for cognition, the book is a reminder, or a message, that humans have imperfect memories and we must use outside factors rather than obsessing an idealized form of godlike memory.

maybe it is indeed part of some mental model, when we talk about systems we also talk about having checklists for systems, so its good :)

Here's some quotes from the book notes of Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin:

"Take all the main models from psychology and use them as a checklist in reviewing outcomes in complex systems." [1]

"It's a great overview of the lessons of Charlie Munger (partner of Warren Buffett) - and his approach to checklists of multi-disciplinary models to guide clear thinking" [1]

"Simplify and standardize processes, and use checklists to decrease the likelihood of operator errors." [1]

[1] http://sivers.org/book/SeekingWisdom

"The Psychology of Intelligence Analysis" -


Is a great book on learning to overcome cognitive bias and dealing with a foggy understanding of a problem set.

When you say overcoming cognitive bias, do you also mean it will help being able to step back from a problem and think outside the box?

Not exactly, stepping back is part of it, thinking outside the box is not.

It means overcoming preconceived ways of thinking, ways that you would tend to think given limited information or denying contrary evidence because it doesn't fit what you think ahead of time -- fitting facts to a theory (bad) rather than building a theory based on facts (good).

For example (and to use a constant source of flame wars here on HN), suppose I'm a huge Apple fan. Apple announces a developer policy change, say, 70% of all app revenue goes to Apple instead of the smaller percentage today.

If I have a cognitive bias (Apple can do no wrong), I might think that this change would only increase app quality since high quality apps already sell a lot, and the change would drive out low quality (low volume) apps that confuse the competitive marketspace and thus increase sales for the high quality apps.

Since I'm biased for Apple, I'm preconditioned to think that anything Apple does is good (even when it's not). I may even go through all manner of fact dismissal, evidence twisting, etc. to make sure Apple comes out looking good over this issue in my mind. In other words, I have a theory and I'm making darn sure the facts fit that theory.

See pretty much any Daring Fireball post for an example of some of the best textbook cognitive bias I've ever seen in print in the tech space.

If I'm able to overcome my cognitive bias I might see this for what it is, a money grab.

Now going the other way, say I'm preconditioned to dislike Apple. In this scenario Apple may announce a new device, say a watch that understands voice commands and has a pico projector so I can see things on a largish screen, the iWatch or some such. I might make remarks that this will be a failure because, who wants to watch movies on their watch? And the Timex Datalink was a huge failure. And as everybody knows voice command of computers sucks. But I'm biased against Apple and will try to find a way to hate anything they make.

Now if I were able to overcome this bias, I might be able to come to the conclusion that it's not a bad idea, but I don't have enough information to come to a judgement so I'll wait, read reviews, try it out a bit, and if it's cool and useful maybe get it. If not, I'll ignore it and move on.

It's about critical thinking and rational thought and is one of the hardest things for people to do, even when they think they are.

I will definitely second Atul Gawande's Checklist Manifesto.

Eliyahu Goldratt's books (I have read Critical Chain and It's Not Luck as well as The Goal) are not as original as often claimed. They are very readable introductions, but a good project management text will cover most of what they do and more. The project management book that I have found most helpful is Project Management With Cpm, Pert and Precedence Diagramming; despite its age (1983) it covers a wider variety of techniques with more detail and less extraneous crud than any of the others I have seen (note I am still researching this area, anyone who has a favorite book can leave it in a comment). http://www.amazon.com/Project-Management-Pert-Precedence-Dia...

Jonathan Baron's Thinking and Deciding is one of the best books on improving your thinking in general that I have ever read. http://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Deciding-Jonathan-Baron/dp/05...

I enjoyed Pragmatic Thinking and Learning (http://pragprog.com/book/ahptl/pragmatic-thinking-and-learni...). It's quite accessible, and doesn't feel too pop or new age.

If you're quick, you can get it rather cheaply during the Black Friday sale. (http://media.pragprog.com/newsletters/2011-11-21.html)

Sequences from http://lesswrong.com . Not a book though, but the reading material is available in .pdf, .epub and .mobi.

I would add that the material tends to be academic without requiring a great deal of prior knowledge, though you do have to deal with a bit of preaching about statistics if your focus is on cognition.

On that point, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is great (and entertaining) for this purpose as well.

Category 1:

- Simple Heuristics That Make Use Smart by Gigerenzer, et al. (http://www.amazon.com/Simple-Heuristics-That-Make-Smart/dp/0...). I have heard good things about this book but have not read it yet.

Category 2:

- Think Twice by Mauboussin (http://www.amazon.com/Think-Twice-Harnessing-Power-Counterin...)

- Influence by Cialdini (http://www.amazon.com/Influence-Psychology-Persuasion-Busine...)

Category 3:

- You already mentioned Michalko, but his other book, Thinkertoys, is also very good (http://www.amazon.com/Thinkertoys-Handbook-Creative-Thinking...)

Category 5:

- Switch by the Heath brothers is excellent (http://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard/dp/0385...)

The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking, & Problem Solving by Barbara Minto (http://www.amazon.com/Pyramid-Principle-Writing-Thinking-Pro...)

Some Mental Models are available here for free :



For systems :

Lean Thinking by James Womack


Some thought provoking personal effectiveness titles :

The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz (http://www.amazon.com/Four-Agreements-Practical-Personal-Fre...)

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz (http://www.amazon.com/Paradox-Choice-Why-More-Less/dp/006000...)

The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

Mind Performance hacks (http://my.safaribooksonline.com/book/personal-productivity/0...) by Ron Hale-Evans, and his web site (http://www.ludism.org/mentat).

There's also the sequel, Mindhacker, which was published by Wiley earlier this year. Ron's stuff is great, and absolutely worth checking out. Info on the new book is at http://http://www.ludism.org/mentat/Mindhacker

(Disclaimer: I contributed two hacks to Mindhacker.)

"Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making", Gary Klein

"Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies", Charles Perrow

"Chaos: Making a New Science", James Gleick

"Filters Against Folly", Garrett James Hardin

"Judgment in Managerial Decision Making", Max Bazerman

"Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity", John Gribben

Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions - Gary Klein http://www.amazon.com/Sources-Power-People-Make-Decisions/dp...

Also, Gerd Gigerenzer is a good name to look into. My degree is in Decision Science, so I'm slightly biased against some of the pop-sci authors. However Gigerenzer has a number of books that range from highly accessible to the academic. Also, he has served as an editor on volumes that relate the study of mental models/cognition to other fields.

One example is: Heuristics and the Law http://www.amazon.com/Heuristics-Law-Dahlem-Workshop-Reports...

Personally, I'm a big fan of Edward DeBono. Two of my favorite books are: 1) Lateral Thinking: http://tinyurl.com/88ugdjz 2) Six Thinking Hats: http://tinyurl.com/7t2w27y . There is a video course available on youtube as well: http://tinyurl.com/6q4rz2t

I learned about them through Alan Kaye's reading list: http://tinyurl.com/83bqlbx He has a section on learning and creativity that has some other good alternatives.

I'm currently enjoying the recently released 'You Are Not So Smart' by David McRaney: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0052RE5MU?ie=UTF8&tag=...

I will never trust my brain again.

It's posts like these that make me realize how much I miss the exposed upvote/downvote comment counters that hacker news used to display.

There are a lot of really good ones here. Three more:

On overcoming cognitive bias (and understanding how mindsets influence motivation, personality, and behavior): Self-Theories by Carol S. Dweck

Mental peformance: The Inner Game of Tennis - The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance

Mental Models on influence: Influencer: The Power to Change Anything

Not a business book, but "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things" by George Lakoff is a great guide to how humans think about categories and other related topics rather than how as computer professionals we're trained to represent those relationships.

Not a book exactly but I've been reading this blog -->


He/She has an interesting take on psychiatry, might be worth checking out sometimes.

lol thank you. I'm luvin it. "For no reason I know, works of philosophy are compromised by even a typo in the introduction, but in science you can open with a golden shower anecdote and no one notices. Oh well. To the experiments."


Here's my addition: http://tempobook.com/

It's by the most excellent Venkatesh Rao: http://www.ribbonfarm.com

- "Models of My Life" by Herbert A. Simon

- "Poor Charlie's Almanack" by Charlie Munger

"Poor Charlie's Almanack" was one of two books which had a profound impact on my way of thinking ( "Charlie Munger - The Psychology of Human Misjudgment", listed in the parent post is probably the best piece in this book.)

The other book, which I read when I was 15 or 16, "The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence" by Ray Kurzweil was the other. Instead of looking at the universe through the question of why won't this work, I began thinking about problems as under what circumstances would this occur. Today, the book may be dated, but its effect for me remains.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgment is available online (or an iteration of it is at least): http://www.rbcpa.com/Mungerspeech_june_95.pdf

Also avaiable: A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business Charles Munger, USC Business School, 1994


Here's another awesome read by Munger that I'm a fan of: http://www.grahamanddoddsville.net/wordpress/Files/Gurus/Cha...

Dietrich Dörner, The Logic of Failure.

Not what you asked for but i believe the act of programming increases your cognitive ability. Like writing down your thoughts can clear things up but even more so because of it's preciseness.

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact