Three widely used, rarely known mental models in politics

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Framing, Game Theory, Power / Power Paradox

Last week, I shared why working with mental models is powerful.

Mental models are how we make sense of the world and how we navigate it.

Most of the time, they work in the background. We are unconscious of them.

But unconscious use of a mental model only means efficient use: we do not need to pay attention to it.

It does not necessarily mean effective use: deep understanding and mastery in applying it.

Achieving mastery requires deliberate practice. And deliberate practice starts with moving what you want to learn from the unconscious to the conscious.

In that spirit, today I want to share with you three widely used, but rarely known mental models in politics:

Framing aka. 'the perception shaper'

  • What it is: framing is the strategic presentation of information to shape how it is perceived and interpreted by an audience.
  • Why it's important:
    • Brings clarity and coherence to the value-bedrock of your surface-level policies.
    • Shapes how your audience views issues and policies.
    • Allows shaping and steering of conversations.
  • Examples:
    • Asylum as a "human right" versus saying it's "not illegal".
    • "Tax relief" versus "tax cuts".
    • "Climate change action" versus "environmental regulation".

Book recommendation:

'Don't think of an Elephant' by George Lakoff

George Lakoff
George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Soc…

Game Theory aka. 'the chessboard'

  • What it is: game theory explores strategic interactions where the outcome for an actor depends on the actions of others.
  • Why it's important:
    • Helps you understand and anticipate opponents' moves.
    • Guides you in thought experiments about the effects of different strategies.
    • Assists in making decisions that consider both immediate and long-term consequences.
  • Examples:
    • Identifying & managing the key individuals or groups essential to win over for your ideas ("essential supporters")
    • How trying to maximize your preferences can end up with a worse outcome for you ("prisoner's dilemma")
    • Negotiations between conflicting parties also shaped by higher level (e.g. international relations) or lower level (e.g. domestic/party politics) considerations of both parties ("multi-level games")

Book recommendation:

'The Dictator's Handbook' by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith

The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Alw…
For eighteen years, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastai…

Power / Power Paradox aka. 'the double-edged sword'

  • What it is: power is the ability to influence the behavior of others or the course of events. The power paradox describes how once power is attained, the qualities that helped achieve it may begin to erode.
  • Why it's important:
    • Enables you to "change the world".
    • It's all around you, like the water that the fish is not aware of; it works in different ways (direct/indirect, 'power over' vs. 'power through') and expressed through different means (money, physical violence, institutions, words)
    • As you use power to shape the world, power shapes you psychologically.
  • Examples:
    • A constitution shapes what's possible or not, just like a meeting agenda.
    • A role in an organization can give you power as well as resources can.
    • Feeling powerful can make make you more goal-directed, more risk-prone, less empathetic.

Book recommendation:

'The Power Paradox' by Dacher Keltner

The Power Paradox - Dacher Keltner
Focus on others leads to power. Power leads to focus on yourself.

The last one - power - is interesting as mental model. I wasn't sure whether it would stretch the meaning of 'mental model' too much, but I don't think so:

Power and the power paradox describe phenomena in the world just as much as they are a way for us to make sense of the world.


  • Seeing everything in the world as a matter of power, or
  • Thinking of power only in it's direct form and as 'power over', or
  • Asking not just how you can use power to shape the world, but also how power is shaping you...

I think these show that power is a mental model of the world.

And the better our models and our flexibility in using them, the better we are at navigating the world.

🎙️ My latest podcast

Better Decisions With Mental Models
About the episode “All models are wrong, but some are useful” George E. P. Box One answer to the question ‘how do we make wiser decisions?’: Being aware of and more deliberately using mental models. What are mental models and why should we be more aware of and deliberately

📚 What I read & listen to

A World Without Email - Cal Newport
I’m pleased to officially announce my new book: A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload. It comes out March 2nd ... Read more

🖋️ My favourite quote

"Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work." - Gustave Flaubert