Charles Good on Mental Models

My last article discussed a few of the universally applicable mental models that everyone should use to improve their critical thinking and decision making skills. To review those models please refer to Developing Mental Models to Improve Your Thinking. This week I would like to add a few additional mental models for your toolkit.

The benefit of having these models is they will help you assess how things work and they help you make better decisions. Even though I never encountered them in my formal education, I have found great value in developing them and using them daily.


Many of us are very good at thinking of the immediate consequences of our actions (first order thinking). However, how good are you at thinking about the second and third-order effects of your decisions or actions? If you are like me, you are not inherently good with this. In fact, it is far easier for me to find personal examples of when this type of thinking did not happen.

I continually fight against making quick decisions and basing them on only the immediate consequences. By looking farther out, the next 5 to 6 moves, I have found that I frequently avoid being the victim of the Law of Unintended Consequences

Warren Buffett provides a great example of this model, where he states, “Once a few people decide to stand on their tiptoes at a parade, everyone must stand on their tiptoes. No one sees any better, but they are all worse off.”

According to Shane Parrish and Rhiannon Beaubien, authors of The Great Mental Models: Volume 1, there are two areas that benefit from using this model.  

  • Prioritizing long-term interests over immediate gains. We usually overweight the present benefits compared to long-term costs. The question to ask is the following.
    • Is this what I want X (body, health, financial position, etc.) to be like in Y (5, 10 or 15 years).
  • Constructing more effective arguments. By identifying potential problems and expected challenges, your arguments will be stronger.

In a recent IMS program, Bob Treadway provided a useful tool to encourage this type of thinking, which is called implication thinking. This approach starts with you identifying a scenario, situation or issue that has importance to you or your team. The next step is to ask yourself, “since this has happened, then what happens?” This style of questioning forces you to think about the future by bringing the future to the present.

You can continue to with this approach by looking at second and third order implications for the identified issue. The final step is to assimilate the insights from this process by asking the following questions:

  • What actions are suggested.
  • What strategies does this imply.
  • What alternative approaches could be considered.

The downside of this model is that it can lead to paralysis by analysis, where no decision in made due to all the possible or hypothetical outcomes farther downstream. Also, don’t forget the farther we go out in the future, the less likely our predictions will be accurate.


We should not attribute to malice that which is more easily explained by stupidity. Like Ockham’s razor (see last week’s article), this model seeks the simplest explanation. When people do something mean or harmful, don’t assume it was intentional or done with evil intent. Instead, assume they took the path of least resistance. At least, until we can prove that this assumption was wrong.

This model helps you overcome the fundamental attribution error, where you frequently make errors by attributing others’ behaviors to their internal motivations rather than external factors. For example, I have made this error whenever I think someone is being mean rather than considering that they may just have a bad day.

In Super Thinking: The Big Book of Mental Models, authors Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann state that the model is especially useful for navigating connections in the virtual world. Since the signals of body language, tone, etc. are often missing. Don’t interpret emails or texts negatively without just cause. Instead, consider other reasons such as the writer may have been in a rush to compose their communication.

I have found that the best explanation for someone’s actions is most often the one that contains the least amount of intent.


This model advocates that you avoid having opinions regarding any important matter or issue until you have reviewed all the facts.

An effective leader needs to see the shades of gray in all situations and not only think in terms of black and white. Most issues are not binary and require some time to consider all of the relevant data. Force yourself to delay deciding until you have considered all the nuances and different points of view. Most important issues and decisions you make are not simple, but are complex with no obvious right answer. I have continually found it valuable to accumulate more facts and arguments before deciding, especially when my initially held beliefs were challenged. As a result, this is a great model to help everyone overcome ‘confirmation bias’.

According to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while keeping the ability to function.

Remember, thinking models are only as valuable as the time you take to understand and personalize them. Take these additional mental models for your toolkit on a road test this week by actively looking for opportunities to apply them.


Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.

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