Lecture 01: Introduction to Mental Models & Mental Tricks

Here is a list of topics covered in my BFBV class (in which I had an opportunity of discussing Charles Munger and Charles Ponzi together!)

  1. Mental models: definition, utility, Herb Simon’s and Charlie Munger’s idea of using checklists, the man-with-a-hammer syndrome.
  2. Warren Buffett’s decision to shut down textile operations of BRK (students were given his essay in his 1985 letter as pre-reading material). Dissection of Buffett’s textile experience into multiple mental models – competition from microeconomics, return on capital from accounting, opportunity cost from microeconomics, prisoners’ dilemma from game theory, contrast effect from psychology and bias from commitment and consistency from psychology.
  3. The necessity of “jumping jurisdictional boundaries” and the futility of using a single tool like Microsoft excel to make decisions.
  4. The mental model framework – the Lollapalooza effect, the need to look at extreme outcomes and working backwards to mental models and also to see how mental models work together to produce lollapalooza effects (thinking forwards).
  5. Inherent contradictions between some mental models e.g. Adam Smith’s invisible hand and Garrett Hardin’s invisible foot.
  6. Feedback loops from engineering, their application in other disciplines, positive feedback loops (spiral, runaway, vicious circles) and negative feedback loops (self correcting e.g. business cycles). Examples of bank runs and stock market crashes and successful business models with embedded positive feedback loops (e.g. Buffett’s example of dominant newspapers wherein circulation and advertising feed on each other, and Wal-Mart where low-prices create high volumes, which creates scale economics for the company which are passed on to customers in the form of low prices which create high volumes….)
  7. Regression to the mean from statistics – applicable in a gaussian bell curve world, Buffett on markets performance regressing to underlying business performance over time, the Graham voting machine weighing machine metaphor, mean reversion strategies, all trends are not destiny.
  8. Creative Destruction by Schumpeter and its relation to extinction in evolution – Sometimes trends ARE destiny, examples of digital cameras vs analogue cameras, mobile phones vs fixed line telephony etc – fascination about observing what goes on inside the heads of entrenched player in a industry who is about to be dislodged by an upstart who has made a better mousetrap, the light at the end of the tunnel coming from an oncoming train metaphor.
  9. Ponzi scheme from mathematics – importance of thinking in terms of Munger’s “functional equivalents” i.e. in this case embedded ponzi schemes in RIETS, business models like Amway, venture capital, greater fool theory in IPOs, chain letters, pension funds etc.
  10. As a follow up reading, students were asked to read Charlie Munger’s essay on S&Ls in Wesco Financial’s annual report for 1990. They were asked to analyze his marvelous decision to get out of the S&L business when he could see the threat from money market funds and Freddie Mac (oncoming train), and how not only he got out of the way of that metaphorical train, he jumped on to it and made a billion dollars for his investors in the process.

2 thoughts on “Lecture 01: Introduction to Mental Models & Mental Tricks

  1. on the link provided on Berkshire’s home page to Mr. munger’s letters to shareholders i am unable to find the letter for 1990…………. if you could provide an alternative link or upload an ofline copy if any from your archives .. it would be much of help to understand point #10 for which you said “marvelous decision” regards 🙂

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