It reduces the blind spots that limit our view of not only the immediate problem, but the second and subsequent order effects of our potential solutions. Without a latticework of the Great Models, our decisions become harder, slower, and less creative. But by using a mental models approach, we can complement our specializations by being curious about how the rest of the world works.
“The better you understand, the better the potential actions you can take.”
The more high-quality mental models you have in your mental toolbox, the more likely you will have the ones needed to understand the problem. And understanding is everything. The better you understand, the better the potential actions you can take. The better the potential actions, the fewer problems you’ll encounter down the road. Better models make better decisions.
It takes time, but the benefits are enormous
Successful people file away a massive, but finite, amount of fundamental, established, essentially unchanging knowledge that can be used in evaluating the infinite number of unique scenarios which show up in the real world.
It is not just knowing the mental models that is important. First, you learn the models, but then you must use them. Each decision presents an opportunity to comb through your repertoire and try one out. This will slow you down at first, and you won’t always choose the right models, but you will get better and more efficient at using mental models as time progresses.
You will not always get it right. Sometimes the model, or models, you choose will not necessarily be the best ones for that situation. That is okay. The more you use them, the more you will be able to build the knowledge of indicators that can trigger the use of the most appropriate model. Using and failing, as long as you acknowledge, reflect, and learn from it, is also how you build your repertoire.
“Sometimes the model, or models, you choose will not necessarily be the best ones for that situation. That is okay.”
When you start to understand the world better, and the whys seem less mysterious, you gain confidence in how you navigate it. The successes will accrue. And more success means more time, less stress, and ultimately a more meaningful life.
Mental models in decision-making
Mental models help decision-making in many ways. Among other benefits, they can help you better understand the information you have, help you identify opportunities, and help you develop a plan of action.
Models are like lenses. When you use them to look at a situation, they help you see new information and new ways to process and integrate that information into your thinking. They are not causal explanations because life has more complexities than any one model can reveal. Models simply enlarge your perspective, giving you valuable insights to make better decisions.
Each example that follows uses a different mental model to better understand a historical situation. Starting with history is a great way to practice using models, and the insights you gain will help you better understand some of the dynamics of your own life.
Use Regression to the Mean to better understand the information you have
Failure or success is usually followed by a result closer to the mean, not the other extreme. Often we put so much pressure on ourselves to knock it out of the park all of the time that average results can seem like failures. But not every effort we make will produce rare and spectacular results. There is always an average.
Regression to the mean is a useful model for helping us put our averages into perspective. We have some influence over what our personal average is. We can work hard to get that mean comparatively high. But we will always have an average and cannot expect outlier success all the time. Appreciating the average is one way to consider the story of the Ford Edsel. Named after Henry Ford’s son, it might well have been the most hyped product released of the 1950s. It’s considered one of the biggest product fails of all time, but using the lens of regression to the mean, we can appreciate that the Edsel is better understood as closer to the average.
While everyone knew about the Edsel before its release; no one knew what it looked like. Ford preceded its release with a lavish two-year advertising campaign. Its name was everywhere, but none of the adverts depicted the car itself. (1) Aiming to build anticipation by shrouding the vehicle in mystery, they only showed small details or unrelated images accompanied by bold claims.
Ford made big promises about the Edsel. They said it was to be the greatest car ever made. Cars were a huge deal for Americans in the 1950s. In the post-war era, owning one went from being a luxury to something attainable for the average person. Mainstream car ownership changed the landscape of America with the construction of motorways and surrounding infrastructure like gas stations and motels. People took pride in their vehicles, viewing them as the linchpin of a new form of freedom and prosperity. So the Edsel captured their imagination, and the notion of it being something revolutionary seemed plausible. If cars had already changed the country, why couldn’t a new car model prove transformative again?
Millions were spent on the Edsel’s advertising. Ford’s initial idea was to make a strategic move into the new market for medium-priced cars, which their main competitors dominated at the time. Following the wild success of the Ford Thunderbird a couple of years earlier, Ford management was confident they couldn’t fail with the Edsel. If the Thunderbird had sold so well, surely the Edsel could only sell better with a bigger advertising budget. (2) They already had the brand name and the trust of consumers.
There was a queue at local showrooms to see the Edsel. As soon as eyes fell on it, a realization rippled across America: the Edsel was just a car. It was not a particularly attractive one at that. Its huge, vertical front grille looked odd and distorted, like a grimacing mouth. (3) The excitement bubble popped. Americans viewed the Edsel as a disappointment and sales were dramatically lower than expected.
Part of the problem was that the Edsel was so overhyped that it could only ever fall short. The advertising drummed up so much excitement, it was impossible for the car to meet expectations. In addition, early vehicles had some technical issues that, though minor, tarnished its image. When Ford did not manage to invent something truly revolutionary, it settled for marketing the Edsel as something it was not.
“The advertising drummed up so much excitement, it was impossible for the car to meet expectations.”
Within two years, Ford stopped selling the Edsel. (4) Some—possibly exaggerated—estimates put the total losses at $2 billion in today’s money. Ford had tried to make the car more desirable than it was through advertising. In the end, they made it less desirable. Thomas E. Bonsall, writing in Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel, writes: ‘People are mesmerized by the mighty brought low…The Titanic became a modern morality play. Man has reached too far, gotten too arrogant, and had, inevitably, been given a comeuppance. So it was with the Edsel. (5) People revelled in the schadenfreude of seeing Ford fail at last.
Many car models have failed over the decades, often in an even more spectacular fashion than the Edsel. Yet it remains the most famous car failure of all. The story of the Edsel is complicated. There was not one reason for its failure. There is no doubt that the pre-release hype caused consumer expectations to be high. And the higher expectations are, the harder it is to fill them. But there were also issues within the Ford Motor Company during the development of the Edsel that led to poor decision-making.
One way to understand the enduring fascination with the story of the Edsel is through the lens of regression to the mean. Businesses are under constant pressure to have every release achieve a new level of success. But sometimes new products are just average. Ford had spectacular success with the Thunderbird before the Edsel and the Mustang after it. When judged against those vehicles, the Edsel seems like a massive failure. It was not really though. It ran okay. Some people liked it. It was just an average car useful for a mother taking her kids to baseball practice or an insurance salesman headed to work.
When you look at the spectrum of cars produced by Ford over time, some sold amazingly, and others hardly registered, with everything else falling in the range in between. The more cars the company releases, the more statistically likely that some will be average sellers. The problem for the Edsel was that the investment made in marketing suggested brilliance but the product was only average. The disappointment was in the contrast. People were expecting another outlier success from Ford, but we all have to regress to our mean at some point.
Use Inversion to develop a plan of action
Inversion is a powerful tool to improve your decision-making because it helps you identify and remove obstacles to success when developing your plan of action. The root of inversion is ‘invert,’ which means to upend or turn upside down. As a thinking tool, it means approaching a situation from the opposite end of the natural starting point. Most of us tend to think one way about a problem: forward. Inversion allows us to flip the problem around and think backwards. Sometimes it is best to start at the beginning, at other times it can be more useful to start at the end.
In the 1920s, the American Tobacco Company wanted to sell more of their Lucky Strike cigarettes to women. Men were smoking, but women were not. There were pervasive taboos against women smoking—it was seen as a man’s activity. Women, therefore, presented an untapped market that had the potential of providing huge revenue. The head of the company thought that they needed to convince women that smoking would make them thinner, riding on the slimness trend that had already begun at the time. The head of the company hired Edward Bernays, who came up with a truly revolutionary marketing campaign. (6)
In an inversion approach, Bernays did not ask, ‘how do I sell more cigarettes to women?’ Instead, he went to the end and worked backwards. He wondered: if women bought and smoked cigarettes, what else would have to be true? What would have to change in the world to make smoking desirable to women and socially acceptable? Then—a step further— once he knew what needed to change, how would he achieve that?
To tackle the idea of smoking as a slimming aid, he mounted a large anti-sweets campaign. After dinner, it was about cigarettes, not dessert. Cigarettes were slimming, while desserts would ruin one’s figure. But Bernays took the model of Inversion even further. Not content with adverts to convince women to stay slim by smoking cigarettes; ‘instead, he sought nothing less than to reshape American society and culture’ (Axelrod, 2008).
Bernays solicited journalists and photographers to promote the virtues of being slim. He sought testimonials from doctors about the health value of smoking after a meal. Additionally, Axelrod claims, he combined this approach with altering the very environment, striving to create a world in which the cigarette was ubiquitous. He mounted a campaign to persuade hotels and restaurants to add cigarettes to dessert-list menus (2016).
This resulted in a complete shift in the consumption habits of American women, reorganizing society to make cigarettes an inescapable part of the American woman’s daily experience.
Bernays’s efforts to make smoking in public socially acceptable had equally startling results. He linked cigarette smoking with women’s emancipation. To smoke, he claimed, was to be free. Cigarettes were marketed as ‘torches of freedom.’ He orchestrated public events, including an infamous parade on Easter Sunday in 1929, which featured women smoking as they walked in the parade. He left no detail unattended, so public perception of smoking was changed almost overnight. He both normalized it and made it desirable in one swoop.
The campaign also used other mental models to achieve its aims, but it was the original decision to invert the approach that provided the framework from which the campaign was created and executed. Bernays didn’t focus on how to sell more cigarettes to women within the existing social structure. Sales would have undoubtedly been a lot more limited. Instead, he thought about what the world would look like if women smoked often and anywhere, and then set about trying to make that world a reality.
Use Cooperation to identify opportunities
We commonly think of biological cooperation as a win-win arrangement for the parties involved. Cooperation significantly expands what is possible by creating emergent properties that have more power than is suggested by the capabilities of the individual components. Often, however, we are so focused on what the competition or the adversary is doing that we forget to look for opportunities for cooperation.
There is possibly no better example of the power of cooperation to transform existing structures and create new capabilities than the relationships required to achieve success as a symphony orchestra. The interaction between the musicians and the conductor involves deep trust and commitment to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.
Alexander Shelley, conductor of the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, Canada, describes the interaction of its members as such: ‘In the best-case scenario, they start to behave like a flock of birds. When you see a flock of birds moving around, you’re not quite sure who’s leading it or what’s happening.’ (7) Such a metaphor speaks to the remarkable level of collaboration happening in symphony orchestras. It’s not a leader with a bunch of followers, nor is it a rigid hierarchy of responsibility. Shelley says, ‘When it’s functioning correctly, it’s a symbiosis between me and the eighty musicians on stage’ (Parrish, 2016).
Why does an orchestra pursue its goals in this way? Because this symbiosis is what all the participants believe is required to truly make the symphony. Perfect cooperation is the difference between good and inspirational.
Trust is an essential component of successful symphony orchestras. Each musician hears the instruments closest to them best, and in some halls, cannot rely on their ears at all if they have to collaborate with an instrument in a different section. To cooperate fully as a group they have to trust each other and understand how their individual part contributes to what the rest of the orchestra is doing. In Music as Alchemy, Tom Service describes the musicians in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra as ‘a group of players who value themselves enormously as individual musicians, but who together create an instantly identifiable single sonic body in their performances.’ (8) Complete cooperation allows the emergence of the musical experience.
“Trust is an essential component of successful symphony orchestras.”
An orchestra has to come together on many levels in order to make music. To achieve the trust required to anticipate the needs of the performance, the cooperation must be absolute. Each member has to be fully invested.
A remarkable example of this cooperation and trust is the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra. Established in 1940, they were ‘the only complete all women’s symphony orchestra in North America at that time—conducted by a woman, managed by women, and composed of women.’ (9) This orchestra was born at a time when it was rare for women to play in orchestras, and if they did, were confined to certain instruments that were considered ‘ladylike’, such as the harp. Anything happening in the public sphere, even music, was still very much considered the purview of men. Of course, not everyone agreed. Two women, Madge Bowen and Ethel Stark decided that there was enough untapped female talent in the city of Montreal to put together an all-female symphony orchestra.
Initially, the only requirement to join the orchestra was commitment and passion. Thus, the orchestra was comprised of women from many walks of life— professional musicians and amateurs, homemakers, socialites, working-class, and upper class. There were Jewish women, Christians, French, English, and white and black women, including Violet Grant, the first black Canadian to be a permanent member of a symphony. Under the guidance of their conductor Ethel Stark, their emphasis was on teamwork and inclusiveness, so that ‘despite their differences, they came together for one purpose: to make music’ (Rachwal, 2015).
The group’s diversity required a staggering amount of cooperation to make the orchestra succeed. They had to deal with social tensions, some of which are still unresolved in contemporary society. Before the instruments could cooperate to make music, the cooperation of the members was required to create the orchestra. Class divisions had to be set aside during rehearsal time for their dedication to the music to come to fruition.
Cooperation often comes about in a biological context due to the latent understanding that no one can do everything. No species or individual is perfectly adapted to deal with the entire spectrum of possible environmental conditions. This applies equally well to an orchestra. There is no music without all the instruments, and these instruments cannot work together without people who are willing to trust each other to respond correctly to the demands of performance.
The Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra devoted themselves to their music, demonstrating, as Maria Noriega Rachwal describes in her biography of the group, ‘the power of music to transcend boundaries’ (2015). Their dedication and talent were finally recognized after years of practice in basements and drafty industrial buildings, squeezing the music in between factory work and child-rearing, when the group became the first Canadian orchestra to be invited to play at Carnegie Hall in New York. The performance was exceptional; the music flowed out to rave reviews. Building on this success, the orchestra toured all over the world and performed on television and radio. Never well-paid, the Montreal Women’s Symphony Orchestra eventually had to shut down after being denied funding that was made available to other Canadian symphony orchestras (Rachwal, 2015). It was truly their commitment to music and each other that led these women to the successes they had. In terms of cooperation, theirs was absolute. The women in the orchestra were all in.
We can therefore see that mental models are powerful tools that shape the way people make judgements and decisions. When we use inaccurate models those judgements and decisions are likely to miss the mark. Using deliberately constructed, accurate mental models improves your chances of making good decisions. Using a model like Regression to the Mean helps you evaluate if something is truly a success or failure. Sometimes, using a mental model like Inversion reshapes the world to fit new narratives we tell about health and freedom (whether or not they are borne out by longer-term health data). By having a model of Cooperation, it might be possible to carry out astonishing feats of collaborative excellence in the absence of the usual expected structures.
By exploring other mental models, teams are able to see their challenges from multiple perspectives, stress-test their responses, or come up with novel solutions. These three mental models are only a small sample of over seventy mental models we explore in the Great Mental Models book series, illustrated with examples from all over the world to improve decision- making. Yet mental models are most effective when they are put together into a latticework, combining models and deep disciplinary expertise so the engineer, psychologist and business teams are able to combine their ways of looking at the world to make the strongest possible decisions.
The stories in this article are excerpts from the Great Mental Models book series. Farnam Street is also releasing a course in 2022 to teach you how to build your own latticework of mental models. Find out more at fs.blog
Rhiannon Beaubien is the Co-Author of The Great Mental Models book series, a fiction writer, and the Managing Editor at Farnam Street Media, a company devoted to helping people master the best of what other people have already figured out. She firmly believes that everyone can improve both their lives and the world by thoughtfully using some deliberately constructed mental models every day.
- Jamie Page Deaton, ‘Why the Ford Edsel Failed,’ How Stuff Works, https://auto. howstuffworks.com/why-the-ford-edsel-failed.htm (8 July 2015).
- Mark Rechtin, ‘The T-Bird: Whoever Did It, Did It Right,’ Automotive News, https://www. autonews.com/article/20030616/SUB/306160815/the-t-bird-whoever-did-it-did-it- right (16 June 2003).
- Richard L. Oliver, Satisfaction: A Behavioral Perspective on the Consumer (Routledge, 2010).
- David Gartman, Auto Opium: A Social History of American Automobile Design (Routledge, 1994).
- Thomas E. Bonsall, Disaster in Dearborn: The Story of the Edsel (Stanford General Books, 2002).
- Alan Axelrod, Profiles in Folly: History’s Worst Decisions and Why They Went Wrong (Sterling, 2008). See further Larry Tye, The Father of Spin (Holt and Company, 1998).
- Parrish, Shane, ed. ‘The Knowledge Project: Alexander Shelley’ The Knowledge Project (podcast), (Farnam Street, 2016).
- Tom Service, Music as Alchemy (Faber and Faber, 2012).
- Maria Noriega Rachwal, From Kitchen to Carnegie Hall (Second Story Press, 2015).