Is Specificity a Mental Model?

by Liron2 min read28th Sep 20194 comments



This is Part IX of the Specificity Sequence

I've recently noticed a lot of smart people publishing lists of mental models. They're apparently having a moment:

There are hundreds of useful mental models to learn, such as “leverage”, “social proof”, “seizing the middle”, and of course, “mental model”. I want to help you be the very best, searching far and wide, teaching your brain to understand the power that’s inside.

Gotta Catch ’Em All

We’ve been focusing nonstop on one (super)powerful mental model called the “ladder of abstraction”, and seen it prove useful in a surprising variety of unrelated domains. The best mental models are the ones that have the largest number of applicability domains while also being the simplest and most compact. 😎

But despite all its usefulness, the ladder of abstraction doesn’t appear in any list of mental models I’ve seen to date. The closest it’s gotten is probably this entry from Farnam Street’s list in the "Military & War" section:

Seeing the Front
One of the most valuable military tactics is the habit of “personally seeing the front” before making decisions — not always relying on advisors, maps, and reports, all of which can be either faulty or biased.

Yes, advisors and maps and reports that tell you the reality on the ground may be “faulty or biased”, but there’s an even more fundamental problem: Their whole job is to slide the ground truth up the ladder of abstraction.

A report tells you that your enemy’s troops on the battlefield outnumber yours 2-to-1. Sounds like you should retreat, right? Not so fast. Let’s slide that down the ladder of abstraction by filling in more detail.

Rain clouds are gathering in the sky? The report might have neglected to mention that detail. When you realize it’s going to rain, you might think of a clever strategy that uses the rain to your advantage.

“Seeing the front” is an instance of “sliding down the ladder of abstraction”: you replace an abstract summarization of observations of the front with a lower-level data dump about the front (which happens to come from your own senses).

“Seeing the front” is absolutely a useful mental model to know; so are others like “Value Prop Story” and "mind-anchor". But “ladder of abstraction” is even more useful because it lets you derive these and a bunch of other mental models for yourself.

Next post: The Power to Draw Better


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I have a giant relational database made in TheBrain called "Thinking Tools" that I use when thinking about problems. It splits up thinking tools into three categories:

1. Mental Models: broad ways of framing the world that can give you new perspectives on problems, solutions, or or objects.

2. Power Tools: Common mental moves or framing tricks you can do to get you closer to your goal.

3. Processes: Step by step flowcharts that are good in specific situations to get particular results.

In my mind:

  • The Ladder of Abstraction is a mental model. Babble and Prune is a mental model. They're broad ways of framing the world that can give you a new perspective and tell you how to apply particular processes or power tools.
  • Specificity is a power tool. Abstraction is a power tool. They're broad mental moves that can often be useful, and are helped greatly by understanding the mental models they grow out of.
  • The Meta Model is an example of a process for creating specificity. Thinking at the Edge is another process for creating specificity. Why/How Laddering is a process for traversing the ladder of abstraction.

Four Causes of Aristotle, Levels of Abstraction of Korzybski, and Levels of Analysis by Marr (elaborated later by Floridi), and Hayakawa's Ladder of Abstraction are all relevant. It's also been in use in the philosophy of medicine and philosophy (and methodology) of anthropology for a long time but I don't know who popularized it in those fields or recall what names it tends to go by.

Here's another mental models thing by some 80K people:

Yeah nice