As a PR adviser, I rely heavily on mental models.
Charlie Munger, the esteemed Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and long-time collaborator of Warren Buffett, is renowned for his sharp intellect and profound wisdom in investing and business strategy. 1Charlie Munger. (2023, October 29). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Munger
A central aspect of Munger’s approach to decision-making and problem-solving is his advocacy for using mental models.
I find mental models useful as a PR adviser and in everyday life.
Here we go:
My Favourite Mental Models
Mental Models: How To Think Better — Faster
“You only have to do a few things right in your life so long as you don’t do too many things wrong.”
— Warren Buffett
Mental models emphasize the importance of viewing problems from multiple perspectives, recognizing personal limitations, and understanding the often unforeseen interactions between different factors.
These models are inspired heavily by the writings of Charlie Munger, Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and long-time collaborator of Warren Buffett and many others.2It’s worth noting that these models are not exclusively Charlie Munger’s inventions but tools he advocates for effective thinking and decision-making.
Here’s a list of my favourite mental models:
The Iron Prescription—This mental model suggests that sometimes, the most challenging actions or decisions yield the best long-term results. Sticking to a tough workout involves pushing through difficulties and resistance to achieve greater rewards. It’s about discipline, perseverance, and the willingness to undertake hard tasks for future gain.
The Red Queen Effect—Originating from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” this metaphor describes a situation where one must continuously adapt, evolve, and work to maintain their position. It’s often used in the context of businesses needing to innovate constantly to stay competitive.
Occam’s Razor—This principle suggests that the simplest explanation is usually correct. The one with the fewest assumptions should be selected when presented with competing hypotheses. It’s a tool for cutting through complexity and focusing on what’s most likely true.
Hanlon’s Razor—This model advises not to attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence or mistake. It’s a reminder to look for simpler explanations before jumping to conclusions about someone’s intentions.
Vaguely Right vs Precisely Wrong—This principle suggests it is better to be approximately correct than exactly incorrect. In many situations, seeking precision can lead to errors if the underlying assumptions or data are flawed. Sometimes, a rough estimate is more useful than a precise but potentially misleading figure.
Fat Pitch—Borrowed from baseball, this concept refers to waiting patiently for the perfect opportunity — a situation where the chances of success are exceptionally high. It suggests the importance of patience and striking when the time is right.
Chesterton’s Fence—A principle stating that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. It’s about respecting the wisdom embedded in established practices and conventions before making changes.
First-Conclusion Bias—This is the tendency to stick with the first conclusion reached without considering alternative possibilities or additional information. It’s a cognitive bias that can impede critical thinking and thorough analysis.
First Principles Thinking—This approach involves breaking down complex problems into their most basic elements and then reassembling them from the ground up. It’s about getting to the fundamental truths of a situation and building your understanding from there rather than relying on assumptions or conventional wisdom.
The Map Is Not the Territory—This model reminds us that representations of reality are not reality itself. Maps, models, and descriptions are simplifications and cannot capture every aspect of the actual territory or situation. It’s a caution against over-relying on models and theories without considering the nuances of real-world situations. 3Silfwer, J. (2022, November 3). Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/walter-lippmann/
Bell Curve—This curve is a graphical depiction of a normal distribution, showing how many occurrences fall near the mean value and fewer occur as you move away from the mean. In decision-making, it’s used to understand and anticipate variability and to recognize that while extreme cases exist, most outcomes will cluster around the average.
Compounding—Often used in the context of finance, compounding refers to the process where the value of an investment increases because the earnings on an investment, both capital gains and interest, earn interest as time passes. This principle can be applied more broadly to understand how small, consistent efforts can yield significant long-term results.
Survival of the Fittest—Borrowed from evolutionary biology, this mental model suggests that only those best adapted to their environment survive and thrive. In a business context, it can refer to companies that adapt to changing market conditions and are more likely to succeed.
Mr. Market—A metaphor created by Benjamin Graham, representing the stock market’s mood swings from optimism to pessimism. It’s used to illustrate emotional reactions in the market and the importance of maintaining objectivity.
Second-Order Thinking—This kind of thinking goes beyond the immediate effects of an action to consider the subsequent effects. It’s about thinking ahead and understanding the longer-term consequences of decisions beyond just the immediate results.
Law of Diminishing Returns—This economic principle states that as investment in a particular area increases, the rate of profit from that investment, after a certain point, cannot increase proportionally and may even decrease. It’s important to understand when additional investment yields progressively smaller returns.
Opportunity Cost—This concept refers to the potential benefits that one misses out on when choosing one alternative over another. It’s the cost of the next best option foregone. Understanding opportunity costs helps make informed decisions by considering what you must give up when choosing.
Swiss Army Knife Approach—This concept emphasizes the importance of having diverse tools (or skills). Being versatile and adaptable in various situations is valuable, like a Swiss Army knife. This model is particularly useful for uncertain and volatile situations.
Acceleration Theory—This concept indicates that the winner mustn’t lead the race from start to finish. Mathematically, delaying maximum “speed” by prolonging the slower acceleration phase correctly will get you across the finish line faster. 4Silfwer, J. (2012, October 31). The Acceleration Theory: Use Momentum To Finish First. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/acceleration-theory/
Manage Expectations—This concept involves setting realistic expectations for yourself and others. It’s about aligning hopes and predictions with what is achievable and probable, thus reducing disappointment and increasing satisfaction. Effective expectation management can lead to better personal and professional relationships and outcomes.
Techlash—This mental model acknowledges that while technology can provide solutions, it can create anticipated and unanticipated problems. It’s a reminder to approach technological innovations cautiously, considering potential negative impacts alongside the benefits.
World’s Most Intelligent Question—This mental model refers to repeatedly asking “Why?” to delve deeper into a problem and understand its root causes. One can uncover layers of understanding that might remain hidden by continually asking why something happens.
Regression to the Mean—This statistical principle states that extreme events are likely to be followed by more moderate ones. Over time, values tend to revert to the average, a concept relevant in many areas, from sports performance to business metrics.
False Dichotomy—This logical fallacy occurs when a situation is presented as having only two exclusive and mutually exhaustive options when other possibilities exist. It oversimplifies complex issues into an “either/or” choice. For instance, saying, “You are either with us or against us”, ignores the possibility of neutral or alternative positions.
Inversion—Inversion involves looking at problems backwards or from the end goal. Instead of thinking about how to achieve something, you consider what would prevent it from happening. This can reveal hidden obstacles and alternative solutions.
Psychology of Human Misjudgment—This mental model refers to understanding the common biases and errors in human thinking. One can make more rational and objective decisions by knowing how cognitive biases, like confirmation bias or the anchoring effect, can lead to flawed reasoning.
Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast—Often used in military and tactical training, this phrase encapsulates the idea that sometimes, slowing down can lead to faster overall progress. The principle is that taking deliberate, considered actions reduces mistakes and inefficiencies, which can lead to faster outcomes in the long run. In practice, it means planning, training, and executing with care, leading to smoother, more efficient operations that achieve objectives faster than rushed, less thoughtful efforts. 5Silfwer, J. (2020, April 24). Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/slow-is-smooth/
Because You Are Worth It—This mental model focuses on self-worth and investing in oneself. It suggests recognizing and affirming one’s value is crucial for personal growth, happiness, and success. This can involve self-care, education, or simply making choices that reflect one’s own value and potential.
Physics Envy—This term describes the desire to apply the precision and certainty of physics to fields where such exactitude is impossible, like economics or social sciences. It’s a caution against overreliance on quantitative methods in areas where qualitative aspects play a significant role.
Easy Street Strategy—This principle suggests that simpler solutions are often better and more effective than complex ones. In decision-making and problem-solving, seeking straightforward, clear-cut solutions can often lead to better outcomes than pursuing overly complicated strategies. 6Silfwer, J. (2021, January 27). The Easy Street PR Strategy: Keep It Simple To Win. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/easy-street-pr-strategy/
Scale is Key—This concept highlights how the impact of decisions or actions can vary dramatically depending on their scale. What works well on a small scale might not be effective or feasible on a larger scale, and vice versa.
Circle of Competence—This concept involves recognizing and understanding one’s own areas of expertise and limitations. The idea is to focus on areas where you have the most knowledge and experience rather than venturing into fields where you lack expertise, thereby increasing the likelihood of success.
Fail Fast, Fail Often—By failing fast, you quickly learn what doesn’t work, which helps in refining your approach or pivoting to something more promising. Failing often is seen not as a series of setbacks but as a necessary part of the process towards success. This mindset encourages experimentation, risk-taking, and learning from mistakes, emphasising agility and adaptability.
Correlation Do Not Equal Causation—This principle is a critical reminder in data analysis and scientific research. Just because two variables show a correlation (they seem to move together or oppose each other) does not mean one causes the other. Other variables could be at play, or it might be a coincidence.
Critical Mass—This mental model emphasizes the importance of reaching a certain threshold to trigger a significant change, whether user adoption, market penetration, or social movement growth. This model guides strategic decisions, such as resource allocation, marketing strategies, and timing of initiatives, to effectively reach and surpass this crucial point. 7Silfwer, J. (2019, March 10). Critical Mass: How Many Social Media Followers Do You Need? Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/critical-mass-followers/
Sorites Paradox—Also known as the paradox of the heap, this paradox arises from vague predicates. It involves a sequence of small changes that don’t seem to make a difference individually but, when accumulated, lead to a significant change where the exact point of change is indiscernible. For example, if you keep removing grains of sand from a heap, when does it stop being a heap? Each grain doesn’t seem to make a difference, but eventually, you’re left with no heap.
The Power of Cycle Times—Mathematically, reducing cycle times in a process that grows exponentially (like content sharing on social networks) drastically increases the growth rate, leading to faster and wider dissemination of the content, thereby driving virality. The combination of exponential growth, network effects, and feedback loops makes cycle time a critical factor. 8Let’s say the number of new social media shares per cycle is a constant multiplier, m. If the cycle time is t and the total time under consideration is T, the number of cycles in this time is T/t. … Continue reading 9Silfwer, J. (2017, February 6). Viral Loops (or How to Incentivise Social Media Sharing). Doctor Spin | the PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/viral-loop/
Non-Linearity—This mental model recognises that outcomes in many situations are not directly proportional to the inputs or efforts. It suggests that effects can be disproportionate to their causes, either escalating rapidly with small changes or remaining stagnant despite significant efforts. Understanding non-linearity helps in recognizing and anticipating complex patterns in various phenomena.
Checklists—This mental model stresses the importance of systematic approaches to prevent mistakes and oversights. Using checklists in complex or repetitive tasks ensures that all necessary steps are followed, and nothing is overlooked, thereby increasing efficiency and accuracy.
Lollapalooza—Coined by Munger, this term refers to situations where multiple factors, tendencies, or biases interact so that the combined effect is much greater than the sum of individual effects. It’s a reminder of how various elements can converge to create significant impacts, often unexpected or unprecedented.
Limits—This mental model acknowledges that everything has boundaries or limits, beyond which there can be negative consequences. Recognizing and respecting personal, professional, and physical limits is essential for sustainable growth and success.
The 5Ws—This mental model refers to the practice of asking “Who, What, When, Where, Why” (and sometimes “How”) to understand a situation or problem fully. By systematically addressing these questions, one can comprehensively understand an issue’s context, causes, and potential solutions, leading to more informed decision-making.
Chauffeur Knowledge—This mental model distinguishes between having a surface-level understanding (like a chauffeur who knows the route) and deep, genuine knowledge (like an expert who understands the intricacies of a subject). It warns against the illusion of expertise based on superficial knowledge and emphasizes the importance of true, deep understanding.
Make Friends with Eminent Dead—This mental model advocates learning from the past, particularly from significant historical figures and their writings. One can gain valuable insights and wisdom by studying the experiences and thoughts of those who have excelled in their fields.
Seizing the Middle—This strategy involves finding and maintaining a balanced, moderate position, especially in conflict or negotiation. It’s about avoiding extremes and finding a sustainable, middle-ground solution. Also, centre positions often offer the widest range of options.
Asymmetric Warfare—This refers to conflict between parties of unequal strength, where the weaker party uses unconventional tactics to exploit the vulnerabilities of the stronger opponent. It’s often discussed in military and business contexts.
Boredom Syndrome—This term refers to the human tendency to seek stimulation or change when things become routine or monotonous, which can lead to unnecessary changes or risks. Sometimes, taking no action is better than taking action, but remaining idle is sometimes difficult.
Survivorship Bias—This cognitive bias involves focusing on people or things that have “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not due to their lack of visibility. This can lead to false conclusions because it ignores the experiences of those who did not make it through the process. 10Silfwer, J. (2019, October 17). Survivorship Bias — Correlation Does Not Equal Causation. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/survivorship-bias/
Each mental model offers a unique lens for viewing problems, making decisions, and strategizing, reflecting the complexity and diversity of thought required in various fields and situations.
In addition, numerous other mental models are used in various fields, such as economics, psychology, and systems thinking.
Learn more: Mental Models: How To Think Better — And Faster
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PR Resource: Checklist for Communicative Leadership
Checklist for Communicative Leadership
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
— George Bernard Shaw
How can you ensure that your leadership is clear in practical situations? Always make sure that everyone in an organisation is clear about the following checks:
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PR Resource: List of Logical Fallacies and Biases
List of Logical Fallacies and Biases
As humans, we often fall for the tricks our own psychology plays on us. These “thinking errors” exist because they’ve often aided our survival. However, knowing and understanding various types of common fallacies and biases is helpful in everyday life.
Here are a few examples of logical fallacies and biases that I’ve come across while studying public relations and linguistics:
Learn more: 58 Logical Fallacies and Biases
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|Charlie Munger. (2023, October 29). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Munger|
|It’s worth noting that these models are not exclusively Charlie Munger’s inventions but tools he advocates for effective thinking and decision-making.|
|Silfwer, J. (2022, November 3). Walter Lippmann: Public Opinion and Perception Management. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/walter-lippmann/|
|Silfwer, J. (2012, October 31). The Acceleration Theory: Use Momentum To Finish First. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/acceleration-theory/|
|Silfwer, J. (2020, April 24). Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/slow-is-smooth/|
|Silfwer, J. (2021, January 27). The Easy Street PR Strategy: Keep It Simple To Win. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/easy-street-pr-strategy/|
|Silfwer, J. (2019, March 10). Critical Mass: How Many Social Media Followers Do You Need? Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/critical-mass-followers/|
|Let’s say the number of new social media shares per cycle is a constant multiplier, m. If the cycle time is t and the total time under consideration is T, the number of cycles in this time is T/t. The total reach after time T can be approximated by m(T/t), assuming one initial share. When t decreases, T/t increases, meaning more cycles occur in the same total time, T. This leads to a higher power of m in the expression m(T/t), which means a significantly larger reach.|
|Silfwer, J. (2017, February 6). Viral Loops (or How to Incentivise Social Media Sharing). Doctor Spin | the PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/viral-loop/|
|Silfwer, J. (2019, October 17). Survivorship Bias — Correlation Does Not Equal Causation. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://doctorspin.net/survivorship-bias/|