I was first introduced to Prof. Scott Page by listening to Farnam Street’s podcast called The Knowledge Project. I’ve been increasingly curious about mental models, and this book was my first full book on the topic.
The Model Thinker reduces real-life interactions into mathematical models. If you have not had an undergraduate-level background in mathematics I’d imagine it difficult to follow along, but if you are familiar with math symbols and formula, the book is incredibly interesting and useful.
Page’s claim is that by understanding models of the world, even if imperfect, we can infer actual useful information and normative policies from them. This is, in fact, the entire premise underlying the field of economics. He covers game theory, network effects, path dependence, randomness, signaling, and many other complex attributes of the world that can be simplified to understandable systems.
The scene is of a family beside a grave, heads bowed. The sky dims, and the mother leads two children away. Looking back at his family leaving, the father stays for a moment longer. He grips a child’s crutch close to his chest and a tear falls from his face. The father lays the crutch beside the grave of his disabled son and steps back with hands clasped, before turning to follow his family. An onlooker moans, “Oh, no! I didn’t want this to happen, tell me these events can yet be changed!” He turns his attention elsewhere in the graveyard, towards a grave for a man with no funeral, with no friends and no family. This man’s burial has only two attendants: the gravediggers. They take a break from their work, seeing no urgency for a man so disfavored. In their absence, the onlooker gets closer and reads the name on the tombstone. It is his own. He has glimpsed the future and it is misery for him and those around him. The prophetic vision gives way and the man awakens to find he is no longer dreaming, but alive in the present, with the capacity to act and change such a disastrous future.
The future is uncertain. It could contain unnecessary suffering and communal disaffection. It could also be a wellspring of hope and happiness. The difference is in the actions we take. We can choose to better ourselves, to divert the course of history onto brighter and better paths. The man who experienced this nightmare went on to brighten the lives of his town as well as his own. This is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge upon meeting the Ghost of Christmas Future.¹ To a lesser extent, this is also the story of our own lives.
In each of us there is potential for many different outcomes, and the path we end up walking is beholden to our choices, our actions. If we put our nose to the grindstone, read, study, be kind to people, and happen on a spot of luck, each of us can imagine the heights we may achieve. We can also imagine hanging around the wrong crowds, directing our efforts in bad directions, letting our minds and bodies fail, treating our friends poorly, and watching our welfare dwindle as a result.
Consider the story of David Goggins. He is a motivational speaker, endurance athlete, and former Navy SEAL. He has recounted his origin story many times, and it speaks to what realizing your potential can look like. He used to be a 300-pound pest-exterminator whose life consisted of fast-food, miserable work, and television binging. One day, watching a military show on special forces, he asked himself why he couldn’t be one of those guys. And then he decided that he could and would be. He lost hundreds of pounds over the following months and changed every aspect of his life for the better.
The transformation begets a motivating fable. In it, he imagines he never changed. When he dies, God witnesses him at Heaven’s gates as an overweight, minimum-wage worker with no self-esteem. “I see,” says God, disappointed. Then God shows him what potential he squandered: “You could have been a Navy SEAL. You could have been an ultramarathon runner. You could have set world records. You could have been an author, and you could have inspired people.” Faced with two possible futures — that of the obese, indigent exterminator or that of glory and achievement. Goggins was fortunate to realize the better potential.
In hindsight, it is easy to see what could have been, and what is better. We know it is good that he turned his life around. If we were given God’s position in this parable, given perfect hindsight, we would judge if we saw him choose to remain destitute and sedentary rather than realize his potential. To judge would be simply to recognize that between two options, we ought to choose the better one. If we reorient our perspective to not be from the omniscient future, but with him in his impoverished state, the conclusions change little. We might not be able to look at him and know what the future holds, but we know it could be better. We know he could have more ambition. We know he could exercise more and be healthier. We know he could be happier. Potential futures manifest suffering and well-being in profoundly different ways. We ought not to wait for hindsight, we must be able to adjudicate between these potentialities in the present.
When we admit that some states are better than others — that achievement or happiness is better than failure and misery — we are judging. We judge those states of greater welfare as preferable to those of suffering. We can thus judge the actions which produce these states to be good or bad, as well as people who manifest a collection of actions. When we originally judge Scrooge to be a bad guy, it is because the set of actions his life embodied led to bad outcomes. When we change our judgment later in the story, it is because his actions change.
Such a character judgment is a broad one, generalized from many actions but devoid of context for individual ones. No man or woman is entirely good or bad. When people consummate thousands of actions per day not all of them can be wholly constructive or totally demonic. But we need not levy broad character judgment to critique decisions. Judgment is good because it allows us to discern between the potentials for good and bad outcomes. It allows us to say it is a good thing that Scrooge changed. It is a good thing Goggins changed.
There often seems to be a social imposition against judgment. You are lazy — “don’t judge me!” You are overweight — “who are you to judge?” You acted immorally — “only God can judge me.” These phrases saturate the language of many people in denial. But failing to be able to judge people has consequences, it implies abandoning the ability to distinguish better from worse outcomes. If you judge someone for smoking, it’s because you believe that the outcomes from smoking are worse than the counterfactual. Insofar as people are affected by the judgment of others enough to change their actions, this is a good thing. If the disdaining gaze of another motivates someone to act in better ways, motivating better states of the world, this is good. Reciprocally, being affected by other people’s judgment can also be good. Insofar as they judge you correctly, social pressure to change your bad behavior can lead to better states of the world.
The decision to change is ultimately down to the individual. Society could not decide for Scrooge to be generous and genial, much as society did not coerce Goggins to become motivated and disciplined. Both, however, exist in the social system of incentives. Scrooge found that his life was better as he joined and helped his community. Goggins’s shame at being fat and indolent was motivated by the counterexample of the SEALs he saw on television. Isolation and shame are terrible in and of themselves, but when they can motivate change to become better, they can be instrumental tools for good.
Such an observation is not without exception. The crowd is certainly not always right, and such pressure might be counterproductive to an otherwise intelligent but impressionable individual who is convinced off of a good path by others’ misguided thoughts. As history has taught us, judgment and social pressure can lead to disastrous social and political movements. Social pressure is useful only when it pressures in the right direction. A second consideration would be that disdain for the character of an individual rather than on a subset of beliefs or actions is to throw away the baby with the bathwater. Censuring the entirety of a person means attacking also that which is good about them, so judgment should be limited to particular actions and the beliefs which motivate them. A third exception might be when people’s obstinance is so great that they will not change no matter the social pressure but will still suffer by the judgment of others. We can see placing an additional burden on those already living badly without affecting change is just more unnecessary suffering.
The limitations of social pressure, the proscription against broad judgment, and the alleviation of burden on those who are hopelessly lost are not trivial exceptions. They can inform good heuristic limits for the implementation of judgment. Where we apply social pressure through judgment, we better be sure we are right. Insofar as we know it’s better to be useful than lazy, to be healthy than sick, and to be upstanding than a cheat, we can levy appropriate judgment on people. When we get into the confusion of politics and philosophy, where right and wrong are more complex, subjective, or unknowable, it would make sense to temper our judgment. Social pressure should be proportioned to certainty. The second exception, the proscription against broad judgment, means we should also seek to condemn only parts but not the whole where we can. Finally, because we cannot know when someone is hopelessly closed-minded, rather than abstain from social pressure and judgment we ought to apply it even-handedly with kindness.
In sum, we must be able to judge people. Is someone else lazy, overweight, mean, and unhappy? Are you? To judge is to admit that there are better potential futures that we could realize, and recognition is the first step to helping us achieve them. Judgment in the form of social pressure can apply incentives for people to act in better ways. However, social judgment is subject to some of its own externalities. To realize the utility of judgment while mitigating its side-effects we ought to be circumspect about the truth of our own opinion, specific in our criticism, and compassionate in our expression. Doing so, we might be able to take a hard look at each other, and at ourselves, and improve all for the better.
¹Specifically, Scrooge McDuck in Disney’s Mickey Mouse Adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
Is it better for us to send a man to Mars or to feed the poor? To build the world’s tallest skyscraper, or to build a homeless shelter? This is Ayn Rand’s question to the reader, and she answers that man’s highest purpose is in achieving greatness and to revel in all the productive achievements that come with it.
I first read this book over a decade ago, on my dad’s recommendation. I am so glad I picked it up again, there is so much I did not understand then. This is the most important book I’ve read all year, if not in my life.