The Most Useful Critical Thinking Mental Models to Know About

by | May 14, 2018 | Critical Thinking

Learning how to think critically is not easy; otherwise, everyone would do it. However, it remains one of the most beneficial skills we can impart to our as teachers. There are many ways to model it as well, as you’ll discover below. Today we’re celebrating critical thinking mental models provided by Gabriel Weinberg, from his Medium article Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful.

Mental models as we know them are essentially tools we use for explaining things. “There are tens of thousands of mental models,” Gabriel says. “Every discipline has their own set that you can learn through coursework, mentorship, or first-hand experience.” In his post, he summarized the mental models he finds most often useful, and the results are diverse and informative.

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Below we’ve shared a few of his categories of critical thinking mental models that you and your learners may find most interesting. Many you’ll recognize and others you’ll be exploring for the first time. Regardless, there is much intellectual food for thought and fodder for discussion here.

If you want to discover more about these common critical thinking mental models, read Gabriel’s article for more insights.

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Common Critical Thinking Mental Models by Category

Explaining

  1. Hanlon’s Razor — “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by carelessness.”
  2. Occam’s Razor — “Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.”
  3. Cognitive Biases — “Tendencies to think in certain ways that can lead to systematic deviations from a standard of rationality or good judgments.”
  4. Arguing from First Principles — “A first principle is a basic, foundational, self-evident proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.”
  5. Proximate vs Root Cause — “A proximate cause is an event which is closest to, or immediately responsible for causing, some observed result. This exists in contrast to a higher-level ultimate cause (or distal cause) which is usually thought of as the ‘real’ reason something occurred.”

Modeling

  1. Thought Experiment — “considers some hypothesis, theory, or principle for the purpose of thinking through its consequences.”
  2. Systems Thinking — “By taking the overall system as well as its parts into account systems thinking is designed to avoid potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences.”
  3. Scenario Analysis — “A process of analyzing possible future events by considering alternative possible outcomes.”
  4. Power-law — “A functional relationship between two quantities, where a relative change in one quantity results in a proportional relative change in the other quantity, independent of the initial size of those quantities: one quantity varies as a power of another.”
  5. Normal Distribution — “A very common continuous probability distribution…Physical quantities that are expected to be the sum of many independent processes (such as measurement errors) often have distributions that are nearly normal.”
  6. Sensitivity Analysis — “The study of how the uncertainty in the output of a mathematical model or system (numerical or otherwise) can be apportioned to different sources of uncertainty in its inputs.”
  7. Cost-benefit Analysis — “A systematic approach to estimating the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives that satisfy transactions, activities or functional requirements for a business.”
  8. Simulation — “The imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.”
  9. Pareto Efficiency — “A state of allocation of resources in which it is impossible to make any one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off…A Pareto improvement is defined to be a change to a different allocation that makes at least one individual better off without making any other individual worse off, given a certain initial allocation of goods among a set of individuals.”
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Brainstorming

  1. Lateral Thinking — “Solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.”
  2. Divergent Thinking vs Convergent Thinking — “Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. It is often used in conjunction with its cognitive opposite, convergent thinking, which follows a particular set of logical steps to arrive at one solution, which in some cases is a ‘correct’ solution.”
  3. Crowdsourcing — “The process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, especially an online community, rather than from employees or suppliers.”
  4. Paradigm shift — “a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline.”

Experimenting

  1. Scientific Method — “Systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”
  2. Proxy — “A variable that is not in itself directly relevant, but that serves in place of an unobservable or immeasurable variable. In order for a variable to be a good proxy, it must have a close correlation, not necessarily linear, with the variable of interest.”
  3. Selection Bias — “The selection of individuals, groups or data for analysis in such a way that proper randomization is not achieved, thereby ensuring that the sample obtained is not representative of the population intended to be analyzed.”
  4. Response Bias — “A wide range of cognitive biases that influence the responses of participants away from an accurate or truthful response.”
  5. Observer Effect — “Changes that the act of observation will make on a phenomenon being observed.”
  6. Survivorship Bias — “The logical error of concentrating on the people or things that ‘survived’ some process and inadvertently overlooking those that did not because of their lack of visibility.”

Reasoning

  1. Anecdotal — “Using a personal experience or an isolated example instead of a sound argument or compelling evidence.”
  2. False Cause — “Presuming that a real or perceived relationship between things means that one is the cause of the other.”
  3. Straw Man — “Giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that was not advanced by that opponent.”
  4. Plausible — Thinking that just because something is plausible means that it is true.
  5. Likely — Thinking that just because something is possible means that it is likely.
  6. Appeal to Emotion — “Manipulating an emotional response in place of a valid or compelling argument.”
  7. Ad Hominem — “Attacking your opponent’s character or personal traits in an attempt to undermine their argument.”
  8. Slippery Slope — “Asserting that if we allow A to happen, then Z will eventually happen too, therefore A should not happen.”
  9. Black or White — “When two alternative states are presented as the only possibilities, when in fact more possibilities exist.”
  10. Bandwagon — “Appealing to popularity or the fact that many people do something as an attempted form of validation.”

Learning

  1. Deliberate Practice — “How expert one becomes at a skill has more to do with how one practices than with merely performing a skill a large number of times.”
  2. Imposter Syndrome — “High-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.”
  3. Dunning-Kruger Effect — “Relatively unskilled persons suffer illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than it really is…[and] highly skilled individuals may underestimate their relative competence and may erroneously assume that tasks which are easy for them are also easy for others.”
  4. Spacing Effect — “The phenomenon whereby learning is greater when studying is spread out over time, as opposed to studying the same amount of time in a single session.”

Productivity

  1. Focus on High-leverage Activities — “Leverage should be the central, guiding metric that helps you determine where to focus your time.”
  2. Makers vs Manager’s Schedule — “When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster.”
  3. Murphy’s Law — “Anything that can go wrong, will.”
  4. Parkinson’s Law — “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
  5. Gate’s Law — “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
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Nature

  1. Nature vs Nurture — “the relative importance of an individual’s innate qualities as compared to an individual’s personal experiences in causing individual differences, especially in behavioral traits.”
  2. Chain Reaction — “A sequence of reactions where a reactive product or by-product causes additional reactions to take place. In a chain reaction, positive feedback leads to a self-amplifying chain of events.”
  3. Filling a Vacuum — A vacuum “is space void of matter.” Filling a vacuum refers to the fact that if a vacuum is put next to something with pressure, it will be quickly filled by the gas producing that pressure.
  4. Emergence — “Whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.”
  5. Natural Selection — “The differential survival and reproduction of individuals due to differences in phenotype. It is a key mechanism of evolution, the change in heritable traits of a population over time.”
  6. Butterfly Effect — “The concept that small causes can have large effects.”
  7. Sustainability — “The endurance of systems and processes.”
  8. Peak Oil — “The point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it is expected to enter terminal decline.”

Philosophy

  1. Consequentialism — “Holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct.”
  2. Distributive Justice vs Procedural Justice — “Procedural justice concerns the fairness and the transparency of the processes by which decisions are made, and may be contrasted with distributive justice (fairness in the distribution of rights or resources), and retributive justice (fairness in the punishment of wrongs).”
  3. Effective Altruism — “Encourages individuals to consider all causes and actions, and then act in the way that brings about the greatest positive impact, based on their values.”
  4. Utilitarianism — “Holding that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility.”
  5. Agnosticism — “The view that the truth values of certain claims — especially metaphysical and religious claims such as whether God, the divine, or the supernatural exist — are unknown and perhaps unknowable.”
  6. Veil of Ignorance — “A method of determining the morality of a certain issue (e.g., slavery) based upon the following thought experiment: parties to the original position know nothing about the particular abilities, tastes, and positions individuals will have within a social order. When such parties are selecting the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society in which they will live, the veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing who will receive a given distribution of rights, positions, and resources in that society.”

Internet

  1. Filter Bubble — “In which a website algorithm selectively guesses what information a user would like to see based on information about the user (such as location, past click behavior and search history) and, as a result, users become separated from information that disagrees with their viewpoints, effectively isolating them in their own cultural or ideological bubbles.”
  2. Botnet — “A number of Internet-connected computers communicating with other similar machines in which components located on networked computers communicate and coordinate their actions by command and control (C&C) or by passing messages to one another.”
  3. Spamming — “The use of electronic messaging systems to send unsolicited messages (spam), especially advertising, as well as sending messages repeatedly on the same site.”
  4. Content Farm — “large amounts of textual content which is specifically designed to satisfy algorithms for maximal retrieval by automated search engines.”
  5. Micropayment — “A financial transaction involving a very small sum of money and usually one that occurs online.”
  6. Godwin’s Law — “If an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.”

Additional Reading

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