Prabha is a junior research associate at a nonprofit that promotes sustainability. She was tasked with gathering data on landmarks that can be converted into green corridors.

Prabha begins researching the topic and soon realizes that there is a lot of data available. She is overwhelmed with information and wonders how to condense it all for the presentation. She then decides to make a presentation highlighting only the most critical data. By making this mental note that she will highlight only the critical data in the presentation, she is able to create a presentation that is both impactful and easy to understand.

We often approach a complex problem just like Prabha did. When we’re faced with something difficult, our instinct is to simplify it to understand it better. This process of simplification forms the basis of a mental model.

Mental models help simplify our complex world. Even if we don’t experience a situation first-hand, we can understand it by creating simple scenarios in our minds. They help us think through problems by using our existing knowledge set.

Let’s look at how mental models can help you think critically and solve complex problems.

What Is A Mental Model?

Mental models are simple iterations of vast amounts of knowledge. A mental model is created by breaking down a complex situation or information and structuring it in a way that is easy to understand. A mental model will help you mitigate errors and make a better judgment. It will help you think outside the box and come up with creative solutions.

Imagine you are looking for a new job. While searching for jobs, you don’t apply to every opening out there. You use filters, such as the type of industry, the job role and the office location when shortlisting openings. This helps you focus your search and find opportunities that fit your profile. Similarly, you can make your life a lot simpler by adopting mental models to solve complex problems.

Examples Of Mental Models At The Workplace

Here are a few widely-accepted mental models used by leaders, scientists and financial investors, among others:

  1. First Principles Model Of Thinking

The first principles model of thinking explains the process and benefits of thinking about problems from scratch. Too much information can result in unoriginal ideas. It can act as a roadblock in problem-solving. If you can start your problem-solving method with a clean slate, you can develop new and original ways to think critically. The first principles help you avoid replication and allow you to rely on what you already know.

For instance, when you’re starting a new business, you want to do something that hasn’t been done before. First principles mean not copying other models and building your own.

  1. Second-Order Thinking

Imagine your computer crashes in the middle of the night. You lose a chunk of your work and have no idea how to recover any of it. What would you do in this scenario? You may immediately think that the only solution is to redo all the work. But if you think carefully, you can come up with better time-saving solutions.

You can reach out to the customer service team for your laptop and figure out a way to recover lost files. Second-order thinking is about thinking through various layers before coming up with an obvious solution. It compels you to dig deeper and find unique ideas.

  1. Thought Experiment

This is a unique mental model because it paves the way for creativity and imagination. Thought experiments are usually applied when you have limited information about a problem. So you rely on your imagination and power of speculation to come up with possible or viable solutions. Endless possibilities mean endless solutions.

Thought experiments will push you out of your comfort zone. Your best ideas may be buried in your subconscious mind—who knows your eureka moment may just be around the corner!

It’s impossible to retain everything you learn in its existing form. Instead, it helps to rely on a mental model to organize your thoughts and apply them where necessary. You may even create your own mental model the way you see fit.

Separating fact from opinions with insightful observations is at the heart of Harappa Education’s Thinking Critically course. Not only will you learn how to develop mental models but also understand how they can help in problem-solving. Sign up for the course today to become a critical thinker!


Explore topics such as Cognitive SkillsHow to Improve Cognitive SkillsCognitive Bias and Cognitive Distortions on Harappa Diaries and learn how to solve complex problems.

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