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Mental Models For a Pandemic

Mental Models For a Pandemic


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Understanding the world through mental models

Understanding the world through mental models

A few months ago, the world seemed reliable, but now it is changing so fast and has so many unknown dimensions, it can be hard to try and keep up.

Mental models can help us understand the world better, especially during times of confusion. A mental model is simply a representation of how something works. It is a way to simplify complexity and provide direction for our choices.





Compounding is exponential growth. We tend to see the immediate linear relationships in the situation, e.g., how one test diagnoses one person.

The compounding effect of that relationship means that increased testing can lead to an exponential decrease in disease transmission because one infected person can infect more than just one person.



Probabilistic thinking

In the absence of enough testing, we need to use probabilistic thinking to make decisions on what actions to take. Reasonable probability will impact your approach to physical distancing if you estimate the likelihood of transmission as being three people out of ten instead of one person out of one thousand.

When you have to make decisions with incomplete information, use inversion: Look at the problem backward. Ask yourself what you could do to make things worse, then avoid doing those things.



Models for society

Using mental models will help in understanding the dynamics of the large-scale social response.

We are currently seeing first-order negatives (closing businesses), and 2nd- and 3rd-order positives (reduced transmission, less stress on the healthcare system.)

We need to encourage the thinking, analysis, and decision-making that considers the effects of the effects of the decisions made. Then we need to use a feedback loop. This will give us a better chance of making good decisions.



The dynamics of a social response

As we watch the pandemic and its consequences unfold, we see that leadership and authority are not the same things.

Disasters expose the cracks in our leadership. We also see people that display strong leadership without needing any authority.




One quality of an ecosystem is its resilience - the speed at which an ecosystem recovers after a disturbance.

  • One factor that interferes with our collective resilience is the thin buffer of our economy. The closing of shops and business has exposed the fragile supply chains. Individuals and businesses don't have enough money saved up.
  • The other is the social ecosystem. We don't have enough medical facilities and supplies. We optimized for a narrow range of possibilities and compromised the resilience of the system.



How to move forward

  • Cooperation is a powerful way to move forward both as individuals and societies. All of us have given up some independence for access to resources provided by others.
  • We can mitigate some negative effects by leveraging our community networks to create cooperative interactions that could fill the gaps in the government response. We can also create more resilient connections in the future.
  • Lastly, we need to consider how we can be less fragile. We can't just get "back to normal" as it proved to be too fragile. We need to ask how we can grow stronger so that we are better prepared and less vulnerable.




Career changes are daunting

Career changes are daunting

Career changes are some of the biggest shifts we will make. They often involve some retraining and will impact your personal life.

When you manage the situation through the lens of a few me...

Velocity: Speed and direction

Change will never be right unless it aligns with what you want to get out of life.

Do you know where you want to go? There's no point just moving at speed without knowing where you want to go. When you articulate your desired direction, you give yourself a clear purpose in your career.

Inversion: Working backwards

Once you know where you want to be, work backwards to where you are now. Carefully consider all the steps in-between in reverse order.

Once you identify your requirements, you can use that list to evaluate opportunities.

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Incomplete information and over-estimation

Incomplete information and over-estimation
  • Much of what you need to know in life is hidden from you. You need to make decisions, but is still the victim of chance or uncertainty.
  • We tend to over-est...

Thinking probabilistically to avoid overestimating our abilities

To avoid the trap of overestimating our own skill, we need to start thinking probabilistically. That means estimating the odds and adapting your decision-making accordingly.

Even if the decision had a good outcome, we still need to objectively analyse the quality of the decision-making underneath.

Learn to deal with tilting

Tilting means realizing that your emotions are not separate from the logic of your decision making - for example, the despair that comes from bad luck, or the overconfidence that comes from a win.

You can learn to cope better by regularly checking in with yourself to see what you are feeling and how you react. Once you have identified those feelings, then try to analyse how they're influencing your judgment.

A Meeting With Conflict

When polarizing topics are discussed in meetings, it can turn into a fight. In these conflicts, where passions run high, people tend to confuse correlation with causation while determining the rea...

Hanlon's Razor

This mental model states that most actions made by people need not be categorized as malicious or intentionally bad, but simply a sign of incompetence and acting out of fear.

Many poor decisions and actions are not intentional but due to ineptitude. By following this mental model, we untie ourselves from unnecessary negativity and work towards a solution.


The mental model of relativity states that everyone's outlook, viewpoint and perspective are different from ours.

The same situation is looked in different ways by people, and understanding these variations can help us toward a meaningful dialogue with them. We can diffuse any inherent conflict by hearing out and identifying what we understand, making the other person feel listened to.