July 13, 2019

90+ Useful Mental Models, Frameworks, and Concepts

Mental models can help us understand the world and make better decisions. I’m collecting a list (in no particular order) of the ones I find most helpful and use most frequently. The ones in bold are ones I find particularly useful or impactful.

This list is not exhaustive — it just contains the ones most salient to me. For more mental models, see this awesome list by Farnam Street.


  1. The scientific method
  2. Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs)
  3. Occam’s razor
  4. Falsifiability
  5. Correlation vs causation
  6. Confirmation bias
  7. If something claims to fix everything, it probably fixes nothing

Game Theory

  1. Prisoner’s Dilemma (competitive games)
  2. Stag Hunt (cooperative games)
  3. Nash equilibrium
  4. Coordination failure
  5. Common knowledge


  1. Expected value
  2. Efficient markets
  3. Market failures (including information asymmetry, externalities, tragedy of the commons, tyranny of small decisions)
  4. Diminishing returns
  5. Zero sum vs non-zero sum
  6. Mechanism design and incentives
  7. Trade-offs
  8. Economies of scale
  9. Marginal utility
  10. Network effects
  11. Opportunity cost
  12. Option value
  13. Compounding (related to positive feedback loops)
  14. Gresham’s Law: Bad money drives out good
  15. Private vs collective ownership, free markets vs planned economies
  16. Sustainable Competitive Advantage (structural factors that allow a firm to outcompete its rivals for many years)
  17. Pareto optimality
  18. Comparative advantage
  19. Value of my time
  20. Value of Information


  1. Survivorship bias
  2. Regression to the mean
  3. Probability distributions (in particular: Long-tailed, Fat-tailed, normal, lognormal, power law, bimodal)
  4. Simpson’s paradox


  1. Leverage points
  2. Unintended consequences (Second-order thinking, Goodhart’s Law, perverse incentives, cobra effect)
  3. Bottlenecks
  4. Feedback loops
  5. Catalysts / activation energy
  6. Inertia / status quo
  7. Leaky abstraction (a term from software engineering, but can be applied in other areas, for example, a company that leaks its internal structure to its customers)
  8. Local vs global optima (terms from Math/CS that apply more broadly, for example: a nice city center apartment might be an accommodation local optimum for you if you live in a city, but it may not be a global optimum if you would be better off in the countryside).

Beliefs and Epistemics

  1. Bayesian updating
  2. The map is not the territory
  3. All models are wrong but some models are useful
  4. Ideological Turing tests
  5. Straw man and steel man
  6. Confidence intervals / calibration training / making predictions
  7. Foxes vs hedgehogs
  8. Sequence vs cluster thinking
  9. For all my beliefs, asking myself: What would change my mind?”
  10. Double crux
  11. Fermi estimates
  12. Epistemic modesty


  1. Effective Altruism
  2. Importance, Neglectedness, Tractability
  3. Thought experiments
  4. Veil of ignorance
  5. Utilitarianism


  1. Natural selection
  2. Batesian Mimicry


  1. Overton window
  2. Voting systems and social choice theory (including Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem)
  3. Unilateralist’s curse
  4. Institutionalized discrimination and axes of oppression
  5. Values disagreements vs empirical disagreements

Productivity and Work

  1. 80/20 rule (AKA the Pareto principle)
  2. Generalists, specialists, t-shaped people, m-shaped people, temporary specialists
  3. Deliberate practice
  4. Maker’s vs manager’s schedule
  5. Sludge and bureaucracy
  6. Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” — Albert Einstein
  7. Optimizing vs satisficing: Sometimes it’s necessary to spend time/resources to achieve the best possible outcome. Other times it’s best to settle for a satisfactory outcome (even if it’s not the best) because it’s not worth the extra time/resources.
  8. Goal factoring
  9. I’m sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn’t have time to write a short one” (Writing short and clear things is harder than writing long things)
  10. Commander’s intent
  11. Maslow’s hammer: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail
  12. Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things” — Peter Drucker
  13. If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority


  1. Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong will go wrong
  2. Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law (related: the Planning Fallacy)
  3. Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
  4. Plans are useless but planning is essential” — Dwight D. Eisenhower
  5. Gate’s Law: Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years
  6. Known knowns, known unknowns, unknown unknowns


  1. System 1 and System 2
  2. Big Five personality traits (The only personality model backed by science)
  3. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
  4. Hanlon’s Razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity
  5. Signalling
  6. Hawthorne Effect
  7. Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Krueger effect
  8. The sunk cost fallacy
  9. Cognitive biases
  10. Chunking (for learning)
  11. Learned helplessness