60 Reality-Shifting Mental Models (And How They Apply in Real Life)

Mental Models (And How They Apply in Real Life)

The human mind is a powerful filter machine. We interpret the world based on our mental models — mind maps or simulations we use to predict how things will work and make decisions.

Everyone understands the world based on experiences, observations, or personal knowledge. Mental models are like internalised maps that shape our perceptions, influence our actions, and determine our outcomes.

We use mental models to:

  • Make sense of the world more quickly and easily.
  • Predict how things will turn out.
  • Generate ideas and approaches to solving problems.
  • Reflect on our experiences and identify patterns that can help us avoid mistakes in the future.

Models for making sense of the world are subjective and personal. Your unique set of mind maps is different from mine. But they evolve as we come across new information and experiences.

Mental models don’t always serve us. Sometimes, they send us on the wrong path. Thinking patterns can help you make better sense of the world or lead to biases and misunderstandings.

“The greatest challenge for people seeking to build a life that matters is not the opinion of others. The most significant obstacle is the mental model they have chosen for themselves,” says Dr. Nathan Mellor, in Sleeping Giants: Authentic Stories and Insights for Building a Life That Matters.

More often than not, you are not aware of your mental models, but they still influence how you think. The only way to take complete control of how you interpret the world is to become aware of how it affects your life.

It requires a change in perspective — a mindset shift that challenges your unconscious beliefs. This is where reality-shifting mental models come into play. Shane Parrish, author of Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results, says:

“What separates good thinkers from great thinkers is:

1) The number of mental models at their disposal;

2) The accuracy of those models; and

3) How quickly they update them when they’re wrong.”

The ability to create, modify, and apply mental models is a key skill for success in every area of life. These powerful tools provide a framework for reframing our understanding of the world, ourselves, and our place in it.

These Physics, Economics, Philosophy and Psychology mental models offer insights into how the world works and they apply in real life. They will challenge how you think, prompt you to question assumptions and expand your worldview.

1. The map is not the territory: Our mental models are representations, not reality itself.

Be open to updating and refining your models as you gain new information.

2. Margin of safety. Things don’t always go as planned. Remember backups and contingencies.

Build a buffer or safety net in your decisions and actions to account for uncertainties or unforeseen events.

3. Meta-cognition. Think about cognitive processes to identify gaps.

To better understand your thought processes better, think about your thinking.

4. Stress-adaptation model. Stress can lead to adaptation and growth when managed effectively.

Embrace challenges, obstacles and resistance as opportunities for personal development.

5. Flow state. A mental state where you are fully immersed and focused on an activity.

Seeking activities that promote flow enhances productivity and an incredible feeling of satisfaction.

6. Social proof. People imitate the actions of others in an attempt to undertake behaviour in a given situation.

Be mindful of the influence of social context on your decision-making process.

6. Entropy. A measure of the disorder or randomness in a system.

The natural tendency of systems and processes is to move towards disorder. Knowledge of this concept can help you maintain order in life.

7. Newton’s third law. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Acknowledge the consequences of your actions and choices in interpersonal relationships and decision-making processes.

8. Plato’s allegory of the cave. It’s a wake-up call for people to seek the truth regardless of their realities.

Seek knowledge and understanding beyond surface beliefs, assumptions and prejudices.

9. Stoicism. Endure hardship with a calm and rational mind — focus on what one can control.

Developing resilience and maintaining inner peace in the face of external challenges changes everything.

10. Existentialism. Freedom and choice, as well as the inherent responsibility for your own actions, leads to meaning.

Take ownership of the direction for your life and live life on your own terms.

10. The golden rule. Treat others as you want to be treated.

Use it as a moral compass for ethical decision-making and fostering positive relationships.

11. Hedonic treadmill. The tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or adverse events.

Investment in long-term habits does more for our happiness than one-off events.

12. Dasein (Heidegger). The experience of being: ‘to exist’ or ‘to be there, to be here’.

Self-reflection and a deeper understanding of your being improves self-becoming

13. Occam’s razor. The principle of simplicity — the simplest explanation is often the correct one.

Clear and straightforward thinking can help us avoid unnecessary complexity in decision-making.

14. Taoism. Emphasises living in harmony with the universe and embracing simplicity and spontaneity.

A balanced and natural approach to life can help us avoid unnecessary resistance.

15. Categorical imperative (Kant). Act according to a universal maxim that can applied without contradiction.

It’s a moral framework for ethical decisions regardless of our desires. A duty to all humans.

16. Inertia. An object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays at the same speed and direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced external force.

Reflect on the effort required to initiate change or maintain momentum in life. Sometimes, all we need is that first step to get started.

17. Eudaimonia (Aristotle). Human flourishing or living in a way that fulfils one’s true nature.

Make growth, virtue, meaning, and excellence your bigger goals, and you will find satisfaction.

18. Akrasia (weakness of will). The state of acting against one’s better judgment due to a lack of self-control.

Self-awareness can help you overcome impulses detrimental to your long-term goals.

19. Wabi-sabi. A Japanese concept that emphasises the beauty of imperfection, impermanence, and simplicity.

Appreciate the beauty in the transient and imperfect nature of life.

20. Epistemic humility. Acknowledging the limits of one’s knowledge and being open to learning from others.

A humble and open-minded approach to life allows us to acquire better knowledge for smarter living.

21. Socratic method. A form of logical argumentative dialogue to stimulate critical thinking.

Thoughtful inquiry, questioning assumptions, and seeking deeper understanding lead to smart choices.

22. Camus’ absurdism. Life inherently lacks meaning. You are responsible for your purpose.

Search for personal meaning and significance in the face of existential challenges.

23. Hume’s fork. Distinguishing between “matters of fact” and “relations of ideas” in epistemology.

Reasonable and logical thinking about the nature of knowledge and the basis of beliefs improves our perceptions.

24. Thoreau’s walden. A reflection on simple living in natural surroundings as a means of achieving self-discovery and enlightenment.

A contemplative and intentional approach to life-based on simplicity and connection with nature means less stress.

25. The butterfly effect (chaos theory). Small changes can have far-reaching and unpredictable consequences.

Be more aware of the potential impact of seemingly insignificant actions.

26. Nietzschean eternal recurrence. Living as if you would have to relive the same life over and over again.

It’s a concept that encourages deliberate living and making choices aligned with our values and aspirations.

27. Parkinson’s law. Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

Realistic deadlines can do more for your productivity.

28. Asch conformity experiment. People tend to conform to group pressure, even when it goes against their better judgment.

Beware of the influence of social dynamics on your decision-making process.

29. Cognitive dissonance theory. The discomfort experienced when holding conflicting beliefs or attitudes.

Self-awareness is crucial in resolving internal conflicts for a psychologically rich life.

30. The serenity prayer. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

It’s a framework for dealing with life’s challenges and cultivating inner peace.

31. Dunning-kruger effect. People with low ability at a task overestimate their ability, while those with high ability underestimate it.

Humility and self-awareness can do more for your real competence.

32. Keystone habits. Certain habits have a positive domino effect, influencing other aspects of life.

Identify and cultivate key habits (the 20% that improves your life).

33. Pygmalion effect. Higher expectations lead to an increase in performance.

Your beliefs and expectations have a lot to do with your achievements.

34. Diderot effect. The tendency for a newly acquired possession to create a spiral of consumption.

Be more mindful of what gets your attention or what you consume.

35. Sunk cost fallacy. The tendency to continue investing in a project or decision based on past investments, even when it’s not rational.

Make decisions based on current and future considerations, not past investments.

36. The frequency illusion. The experience of noticing a recently learned or experienced phenomenon everywhere.

When you learn or perceive something for the first time, you are more likely to see it everywhere.

37. Pareidolia. The tendency to perceive meaningful patterns or images in random stimuli.

Be more aware of the human inclination to find order and meaning in ambiguous situations.

38. Crony capitalism. An economic system where close relationships between business people and government officials determine success in business.

Political connections have more impact on economic outcomes than we think.

39. Moral licensing. People use past moral behaviour as a justification for morally questionable behaviour.

Be more self-aware about the potential for moral licensing and the need for consistent ethical behaviour.

40. Priming. Exposure to one stimulus influences a response to a subsequent stimulus.

Environmental cues have a lot of influence on behaviour and decision-making.

41. Ego depletion. The idea that self-control or willpower is a finite resource that can be depleted.

Decision fatigue influences how we think. Strategic allocation of self-control can help you make better decisions.

42. Moral luck. Factors beyond our control can influence the moral assessment of our actions.

Luck has a role in moral judgments. Ethical decisions are complex.

43. Kaizen. Continuous improvement.

Make small, incremental improvements consistently over time for significant long-term progress.

44. Six degrees of separation. Any two people can be connected through a chain of social connections of no more than six links.

The potential for diverse connections is closer than you think.

45. Hofstadter’s law. Everything takes longer than you expect, even when you take Hofstadter’s Law into account.

Become a realistic planner and consider unexpected challenges.

46. Toulmin model of argumentation. An approach to analysing and constructing arguments with specific components like claims, warrants, and evidence.

Critical thinking is how you construct persuasive arguments.

47. Zone of proximal development (Vygotsky). The range of tasks a learner can perform with the help of a more knowledgeable person.

Collaborative learning with the right person can 10x your skill.

48. Self-determination theory. People are motivated by the need for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

The right intrinsic motivation framework can help improve many aspects of life.

49. Ratchet effect. The tendency for progress or systems to only move in one direction.

Be more vigilant in assessing and adapting systems to prevent unintended consequences.

50. James-Lange theory of emotion. Emotions are a result of physiological reactions to stimuli.

A better understanding of the connection between physical sensations and emotional experiences means improvement in emotional maturity.

51. Gestalt psychology. Perceptions are shaped by the whole, not just the sum of individual parts.

Embrace holistic thinking and consider the overall context in all experiences.

52. Dopamine feedback loop. Dopamine release reinforces behaviour, creating a feedback loop.

Reward systems play a crucial role in habit formation and motivation.

53. The myth of Sisyphus (Camus). Life’s absurd, but the human struggle for meaning despite an indifferent universe changes everything.

Existential reflection can help you pursue meaning in the face of challenges.

54. Effort justification. The tendency to assign value to an outcome based on the effort invested.

Recognise the impact of effort on perceptions of achievement.

55. Streetlight effect. Searching for something where it’s easiest, not where it’s most likely to be found.

A thorough investigation leads to the real truth. Avoid shortcuts.

56. Antifragility. Volatility and uncertainty are inevitable, but you can prepare yourself for the shocks of life.

Strive not just to withstand chaos but to benefit from it and grow stronger.

57. Compounding. Investment grows by generating earnings on both the principal and accumulated earnings.

Think long-term for consistent effort for cumulative benefits.

58. Zero-sum game vs. positive-sum game. The difference between win-win scenarios and situations where one person’s gain is another’s loss.

Life is not a zero-sum game. You don’t have to win at another person’s expense. We can all be winners.

59. Black swan events. Rare and unpredictable events can have profound impacts.

Be more knowledgeable about trends shaping your industry.

60. Regret aversion. The fear of regret can influence decision-making, leading to risk aversion.

Be more aware of regret avoidance.

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Categorized as Life