Useful models are better than correct models

“There is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right.”
– Edward Abbey

The more correct something is, the more useful it tends to be. But this correlation is overestimated. Fixating on correctness cripples our personal growth.

***

Here are some tools that we might like to have:

  • Reliably act on our better judgment
  • Enter a high-productivity flow state on demand
  • Enter a focused meditative trance on demand
  • Enter a hypnotic trance on demand to eliminate bad habits
  • Use humor effectively
  • Easily improvise to overcome unexpected challenges
  • Change our preferences consciously, such as making ourselves dislike the taste of sugary foods, or enjoy the sensation of exercising
  • Change our personality traits to become more conscientious, more agreeable, and less neurotic
  • Change our attachment style to secure attachment
  • Change what we are attracted to in friends and romantic partners
  • Lead by inspiring and encouraging others
  • Override our elephant with our rider whenever we want to
  • Quickly and accurately understand other people so that we can predict their thoughts and actions
  • Tolerate cognitive dissonance to help make better decisions

Some of these tools are very powerful, yet most people have none of them. Interestingly, people who have one of these tools usually have several of the others. This suggests there is a common thread to all of these superpowers, and we need to figure out what it is. Are some people just lucky enough to be born with this thread, or can we learn techniques that gives us a head start on developing these skills?

 

First, we need to take a quick detour. A model is correct to the extent that facts and evidence support it. A model is useful to the extent that it suggests thoughts or actions that help us achieve our goals.

As an illustration of this, we showed in a previous article that the calories-in, calories-out model was useless for dieting because it was focusing on an irrelevant part of the system. The concept of satiety, as described by attempts such as Glycemic Index or fullness, builds on the calories-in, calories-out model by considering the ratio of calories consumed to how filling they are. This makes it more useful because the advice focuses on implementation. By introducing this ratio, though, the model becomes less correct because satiety is subjective and can’t be objectively measured. We can plot these two approaches on a graph, like so:

usefulcorrect1a

The MBTI personality inventory is another model that is wrong but useful. It was created with a pseudo-scientific approach, and has only weak evidence to support it. It tends to be useful, though, as it produces specific recommendations for areas to improve or interacting with others. These are tailored to the specific personality types identified by the MBTI, and many people find them quite helpful.

We can contrast this with the Big 5 personality traits. This model is more correct than the MBTI because it’s based on factor analysis. The Big 5 traits are somewhat useful –agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism are practical concepts. But since it’s mainly a descriptive tool, there’s less useful advice we can get from it.

usefulcorrect1b

Another example is the concept of strategic overconfidence. As discussed in Left Brain, Right Stuff, it’s good to be realistic when looking at things we can’t influence. But when it comes to situations where our actions matter, we should be overconfident in our abilities. This is because higher confidence leads to better results, with effect sizes around 10% for typical actions.

In golf, for example, we should be realistic when assessing what type of shot to attempt. We need to objectively consider the wind direction, the length of the grass, and the distance to the pin. Once we have decided on our strategy, we need be strategically overconfident, in order to maximize the accuracy of our shot. When we’ve finished, we once again need to be impartial, and think about our play in the current session and what we need to improve.

Being overconfident is clearly wrong. But it is more useful than being realistic, precisely because it is wrong!

usefulcorrect1c

It’s true that in general, the more correct something is, the more useful it is. But almost everyone overestimates the strength of this relationship. Fixating on correctness cripples our growth, because all of the powerful tools we mentioned are closed off to us. We benefit from separating usefulness and correctness into their own categories, instead of merging them.

 

What’s the connection between this and the amazing tools we listed?

The connection is that our brains will subconsciously resist any efforts to change itself if the proposed change is misaligned with our worldview. If our worldview is based on correctness being the same as usefulness, our brain will consider wrong models to be useless, and will reject them all. All of these benefits and tools require us to accept wrong modes of thought in order to be effective. A few examples to illustrate this:

  • In hypnotic induction, we bypass the logical part of the brain by deliberately overloading it with nonsense.
  • A good sense of humor involves rapidly drawing links between concepts, and then adding an illogical twist.
  • Successfully changing our preferences involves simultaneously accepting that our current preferences are good, and that our desired preferences are also good.
  • Being a natural leader requires us to show a higher amount of confidence than we actually have, but we need to do this authentically.

If we try these techniques without accepting the difference between correctness and usefulness, one of two things will happen:

  1. Our brain sees this as an attempt to force it to suppress the truth by feeding it wrong information. Our brain will deal with this cognitive dissonance by resisting and rejecting our attempts.
  2. We pressure ourselves hard enough that our brain is forced to submit. In this case, we get the benefits of the technique, but at a heavy price. We have forced our brain to accept wrong information without teaching it safe ways to handle it. This will shake the foundations of our mental stability. We will be similar to people who have been through long term brainwashing, and we become passive and helpless.

With our new framework of correctness and usefulness, we avoid both of these problems. Our brains can relax when using a wrong but useful model, recognizing that these two traits are not mutually exclusive. It won’t be confused and suddenly think that wrong is correct, or that useful is useless. This framework means that mental models don’t define who we are. We can change our models without destroying our selves or our personalities. We can have multiple conflicting models in mind and choose the best one based on the situation.

 

We’ve seen that usefulness and correctness are not directly related, and we developed a new model that separates them. We now know why this is so important, and how it helps us learn the powerful techniques listed at the start of this article. The next few articles will dive into each of these techniques and discuss why they are powerful, their recommended uses, and how to quickly learn them.

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