Latticework Of Mental Models: Better Decisions, Better Investors

by: David Ahern

Summary

Developing your mental models is key to making better decisions in investing and in life.

You don't have to learn all the models, just the important ones.

Learning how to think for ourselves is never easy, but it is necessary to improve and grow.

How do we become better investors? Better decision makers? Having a latticework of mental models to hang our thoughts and choices on is a great start. Creating these models is how we learn to become better decision makers. Before creating our latticework of mental models we need to create the mental models that we will use. We must explore the big ideas from the major disciplines:

Physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, literature, history, sociology, and others.

These are the big disciplines that we call the models.

Our goal is not to remember facts and be able to repeat them, like on a test in college. The goal is to hang these models on a latticework of mental models with concrete examples in our head to help us remember them and apply them in our life.

The latticework of mental models puts them in a form that we can use to analyze a wide variety of situations. This enables us to make better decisions. When these big ideas from multiple disciplines all point toward the same conclusion, we can begin to make the conclusion that we have come across an important truth.

Charlie Munger and the latticework of mental models

This idea of a latticework comes Charlie Munger, co-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. Munger is one of the greatest cross-disciplinary thinkers in the world.

I could try to explain his thoughts on worldly wisdom, but I would fail miserably. So instead we will use his words.

Well, the first rule is that you can't really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang 'em back. If the facts don't hang together on a latticework of theory, you don't have them in a usable form.

It's like the old saying, "To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." And of course, that's the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That's why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense.

You may say, "My God, this is already getting way too tough." But, fortunately, it isn't that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

Charlie Munger

In a speech that Munger gave at USC Business School in 1994, he started to delve into this idea of a latticework of mental models. Check out the pdf here.

Keep in mind, the acquiring of wisdom is a process that takes time. It is an ongoing process of discovering the significant concepts, or models. This comes from many different areas of knowledge, and learning to recognize the similarities among them.

This is a matter of educating yourself and then learning to see and think differently.

Mental Models

"An explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world. It is a representation of the surrounding world, the relationships between its various parts and a person's intuitive perception about his or her own acts and their consequences. Mental models can help shape behavior and set an approach to solving problems (akin to a personal algorithm) and doing tasks."

Wikipedia

The central idea of mental models is that you must have many of them. Think of them as tools. If you have the right tools it makes the job that much easier. The same rule applies to mental models - the more you can acquire the better.

This may seem like a natural thing, but it is actually quite unnatural to think that way. Without the right training, your brain will resort to: "What models do I know and love, and how can I use them in this circumstance?"

Munger's analogy for this is the man with the hammer.

"To a man with only a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

Charlie Munger

Narrow-minded thinking like this feels completely normal to us, but it leads to too many misjudgments.

When you use only one mental model, you tend to shoehorn everything into that model, no matter the situation. This can lead to dangerous thinking or decisions.

How to avoid this? By adding different models to the current ones that you know. Allow these models to compete with each other. Frankly, at first this will be uncomfortable, but that is how you know it is working.

This is why thinking is so important. It allows your brain to compete with the superior model and create vivid examples that allow us to recall them when needed.

Remember when you first learned how to ride a bike? At first, you can't understand or believe that you are supposed to steer, pedal, and watch where you are going all at once. But eventually it catches and you can't imagine being able to do it. Like the phrase, "it's like riding a bike," once you know how to do it, you will never forget the skill.

Tools to create a latticework of mental models

Have many tools in your mental tool bag. Don't be the man with the "hammer."

"You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines, and use them routinely--all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model--economics, for example--and try to solve all problems in one way."

Charlie Munger

Munger felt that thinking clearly is a trained response. He felt our brain was a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly. To be a world class sprinter you need the form, which can be learned. Your natural running style may be fast, but to compete with the world's best you must train your body to adopt the correct form.

What are some of the big disciplines you ask? Here you go. Keep in mind that you don't need to know everything about all of them - just the big ideas. To see a list check out this.

Have a system or checklist, and follow it. Creating a checklist is a must for any investor. As you learn more about the stock market and acquire companies you will start to see patterns that develop with successful companies. As well as patterns of companies that fail.

You must learn from these patterns and create a checklist to help you avoid the failures.

Checklists can help make your decision making better, but there is no formula. You will learn from your mistakes and add to the checklist as you go. These lists can help us stay rational in the face of uncertainty and chaos.

Some of the most successful investors that I know, Seth Klarman and Monish Pabrai, are ardent followers of checklists. It is essential to their decision-making process.

Munger never reveals his exact checklist, just hints at different aspects of them through his speeches, writings, and talks. There is a reason for this. He wants us to think, and create our own.

Invert. Solve problems by finding ways to cause problems and learn to avoid them.

"Think forwards and backward--invert, always invert."

Charlie Munger

"Many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward."

Charlie Munger

Think of it this way. A great way to be happy in life is to avoid the things that make you miserable.

In the case of investing: Are you going to be more profitable by chasing the big score? Or are you going to be more successful if you practice risk aversion?

Most people equate greater reward with greater risk. But Warren Buffett has made a vast fortune by simply avoiding risk.

Munger has stated that much of the success that he and Buffett have achieved stems not as much from brilliance but rather "avoiding stupidity."

Another example as it relates to the stock market: If you find a stock that you wish to buy, after doing all of your analysis and coming with your reasons to buy, take the opposite approach and come up with reasons why you shouldn't buy the stock. By doing this you guarantee that your research is complete and you have thoroughly looked at every angle of the investment.

Learn from others mistakes. This one is pretty self-explanatory to me. You must learn from others as well as your own mistakes. The only way to learn and get better is by embracing errors and learning from them.

An example of the attitude to embrace: After inventing the light bulb, Thomas Edison was asked about his 3000 failures before hitting on the right combinations. He stated that he didn't fail 3000 times, he just learned 3,000 ways not to make a lightbulb. What a great attitude!

Warren Buffett has stated numerous times that he has learned vast lessons from his failures. He bought Dexter shoes for millions and then a few years later it went bust. During his investigations into the company, he discovered what he thought was their "moat." Turned out he was incorrect. But he learned from that mistake.

Recently Bill Ackman, who runs the Pershing Fund, was the focus of the Valeant disaster. He was the largest investor in the company and during the collapse of the company he took an absolutely huge loss. To the tune of $1.09 billion!! Whoa. My point of discussing his loss was that he was on TV constantly explaining his process and what happened to the company. I watched every interview I could find, not because I wanted to gloat in his failure but because I was fascinated by his exploration of his mistakes. Trust me, he is much, much smarter than I am but it was humbling to me to see this very accomplished man admitting his mistakes publicly. I learned from his mistakes.

I have made my own mistakes in investing. When I first began this journey I bought a few stocks on the advice of an online newsletter whose suggestions upon further review had no real basis. Much of their picks are flawed but they hang their hat on a few very successful investments, not their system or process. Basically, it was luck.

And I lost money, a lot of it. But I learned to never buy something without doing my due diligence and own investigation. I learned to have a plan and a process in my investments. It has made a world of difference in my performance.

Find lollapaloozas. The term was first brought to fame by Munger. Here are some of his thoughts on this effect:

"I've been searching for lollapalooza results all my life, so I'm very interested in models that explain their occurrence. Often results are not linear. You get a little bit more mass, and you get a lollapalooza result. Adding success factors so that a bigger combination drives success, often in non-linear fashion, as one is reminded by the concept of breakpoint and the concept of critical mass in physics."

"Really big effects, lollapalooza effects, will often come only from large combinations of factors. For instance, tuberculosis was tamed, at least for a long time, only by routine, combined use in each case of three different drugs. Other lollapalooza effects, like the flight of an airplane, follow a similar pattern."

Charlie Munger

Other thoughts from Michael Mauboussin:

"A complex adaptive system has three characteristics. The first is that the system consists of a number of heterogeneous agents, and each of those agents makes decisions about how to behave.

The most important dimension here is that those decisions will evolve over time. The second characteristic is that the agents interact with one another. That interaction leads to the third-something that scientists call emergence: In a very real way, the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.

The key issue is that you can't really understand the whole system by simply looking at its individual parts. "You can't make predictions in any but the broadest and vaguest terms." Complex adaptive systems effectively obscure cause and effect" "Complexity doesn't lend itself to tidy mathematics in the way that some traditional, linear financial models do."

"Increasingly, professionals are forced to confront decisions related to complex systems, which are by their very nature nonlinear… "

Munger was fascinated with lollapalooza effects. The definition of a lollapalooza is "a person or thing that is particularly impressive or attractive."

Munger uses the lollapalooza effect as a means of multiple factors acting together in ways that feedback on each other.

An example of a lollapalooza effect, according to Munger, is the recent 2007 market crash. He felt that many different causes came together at the right time to create the crash. Among them were:

  • Abusive credit consumer practices
  • Mortgage brokers' greed
  • Wall Street going crazy
  • Regulatory practices that allowed all this happen
  • Credit system as the repo system
  • Immense leverage on stock indices and -
  • CDS Phony accounting

If you are curious about this event at all you need to watch the movie The Big Short - very entertaining and illuminating about what happened.

If you are interested in learning more about this effect. Munger recommends the book Deep Simplicity: Bringing Order to Chaos and Complexity by John Gribbin.

Continue to grind it out. Work at becoming more rational. It doesn't come quickly or easily. Try to go to sleep smarter than when you woke up.

Be patient and continue to try and grow each and every day.

Reading is one of the keys to learning. Rationality is a learned behavior and can be taught. We all have natural predilections to certain behaviors or thoughts. But we can teach ourselves to become more rational.

One example of this is to develop checklists. Munger is a huge fan of checklists, not just for investing but with his tool kit for his decisions as well. He also recommends the book The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande.

Books like this help you identify dysfunctional thinking and bias. It can help give a nudge to help you deal with the bias and dysfunctional thinking. And it helps point you in the right direction.

Disconfirming evidence. Work to try to kill your ideas. It is far too easy to fall in love with a stock pick and then let your rose-colored glasses filter anything negative about your stock pick. Guess what? The stock market doesn't care how much you love the stock: If it is flawed the market will be merciless.

Munger was a huge fan of Charles Darwin. In his commencement speech at USC in 2007, he praised Darwin as a model of rational, objective thinking - in particular his ability to consciously overcome his first-conclusion bias.

Other thoughts on Darwin from Munger:

"And one of the great things to learn from Darwin is the value of extreme objectivity. He tried to disconfirm his ideas as soon as he got 'em. He quickly put down in his notebook anything that disconfirmed a much-loved idea. Darwin especially sought out such things. Well, if you keep doing that over time, you get to be a perfectly marvelous thinker instead of one more klutz repeatedly demonstrating first-conclusion bias"

How to apply this to investing? Munger went on to explain:

"Investment should be approached in the same way. When you find a company or idea you like…try and break it down and prove yourself wrong. If you can't (and as long as you're somewhat competent), you have a good investment."

Think as far ahead as possible. Munger gave a number of examples of how often people only look at immediate consequences of certain actions and fail to consider second- and third-order consequences. For example:

Now let's follow and second- and third-order consequences: You are more prosperous than you would have been if you hadn't traded with China in terms of average well-being in the U.S., right? Ricardo proved it. But which nation is going to be growing faster in economic terms?

It's obviously China. They're absorbing all the modern technology of the world through this great facilitator in free trade and, like the Asian Tigers have proved, they will get ahead fast.

Look at Hong Kong. Take a look at Taiwan. Look at early Japan. So, you start in a place where you've got a weak nation of backward peasants, a billion and a quarter of them, and in the end, they're going to be a much bigger, stronger nation than you are, maybe even having more and better atomic bombs.

If you try and talk like this to an economics professor, and I've done this three times, they shrink in horror and offense because they don't like this kind of talk.

It really gums up this nice discipline of theirs, which is so much simpler when you ignore second- and third-order consequences."

Final Thoughts

I am going to be honest when I say that I have only scratched the surface with this topic. This is an ongoing subject that deserves a lot of attention. I will post different ideas that I have on this subject as we go along.

This is not my forte, and I will be learning along with you as we travel down the road of acquiring knowledge and wisdom.

The psychological side of investing is arguably the most important aspect. It is not tackled as often as it should be. But it has such a huge bearing on your success as an investor, not to mention your life as a whole.

Some of the greatest investors out there speak all the time of the mental edge that they create with their use of the latticework of mental models that they acquire. It gives them a superior advantage over the people they are competing against.

Everyone has a latticework that they build upon throughout their lives. It is a matter of developing the additional mental models that they can add to their latticework. The training is hard and laborious, and maybe a bit frustrating. But it is worth it.

Reading and thinking are the keys. On the subject of reading, I would strongly recommend you read some of the books from the thought leaders on this subject:

Mauboussin also writes for Credit Suisse and a ton of his articles can be found there too.

All the above authors are great resources if you want to learn more about this fascinating subject. They all have great takes on their thoughts and are extremely articulate. I would consider them thought leaders in this field.

This list is by no means exhaustive, they are just the ones that I have come across in my search for knowledge.

I hope you have found this article as entertaining as it was for me to write. As always if you found it of value please share it with someone to help them.

As ever, thank you for taking the time to read this article.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments.

Take care,

Dave

Disclosure: I/we have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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