February 21, 2022




Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, Functional Fixedness Bias, Least Effort Principle & More

At a glance

Hello again Mental Models Lovers!

It’s great to have you on board for the third edition of my weekly newsletter.

This week we covered 100 more mental models (concepts and biases) across psychology and general thinking.

Some highlights for this week include:

  • The Moral Credential Effect
  • Pro-innovation bias
  • Restraint bias
  • Rhyme as a reason effect
  • Road well-travelled effect
  • and many more...

As always, if you get value out of this, I’d appreciate you sharing it or my Twitter profile on Twitter so others can get value out of it too :)

General Thinking Concepts

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

An illusion where once something has recently come to one’s attention, it suddenly seems to appear with improbable frequency shortly afterwards, making one overestimate its prevalence

Closely related to selection and recency bias

It could be a type of car, a song, a particular style of house, or just about anything. Suddenly, you’re aware of that thing all over the place

In reality, there’s no increase in occurrence. It’s just that you’ve started to notice it

Why does it happen? Your brain can't take in every detail and chooses to prioritise certain information

When you're exposed to brand-new information, especially if you find it interesting, your brain will tend to prioritise it in the future

Functional Fixedness Bias

A cognitive bias that limits a person to use an object only in the way it is traditionally used

Functional fixedness is a mental block against using an object in a new way that is required to solve a problem

The "block" limits the ability of an individual to use components given to them to complete a task, as they can't move past the original purpose of those components

E.g., Someone needs a weight, but they only have a hammer, they may not see how the hammer can be used as a weight

Functional fixedness isn't always a bad thing. In many cases, it can act as a mental shortcut allowing you to quickly and efficiently determine a practical use for an object

However, in some cases better thinking results from thinking "outside" traditional uses

Least Effort Principle

A theory suggesting that animals, humans, and well-designed machines will naturally seek the path of least resistance, and that effort declines as the minimum acceptable result is attained

For example, one might consult a generalist co-worker down the hall rather than a specialist in another building, so long as the generalist's answers are within the threshold of acceptability

This obvious issue with this is that it doesn't always lead to the best outcome

A good way to combat this principle is to think through whether the task at hand is a task where the minimum threshold of acceptability is actually acceptable

If lives or a business is on the line, it probably pays to make the extra investment required for a good outcome

Hard-Easy Effect

We tend to overestimate our ability to do something hard and underestimate our ability to do something easy

This leads us to focus on what’s hard even though the thing that’s easy might bring the same, or larger, rewards

For example, imagine that you are learning how to drive and have to complete both a written exam and driving test

Arguably the test is more difficult because it's based on knowledge and skill, whereas the exam is mostly based on knowledge

The hard-easy effect makes you overconfident in your ability to pass the test and underconfident about how likely you are to pass the written exam

As a result, you barely practice driving and focus all your attention on the written exam

On test day, you easily pass the written exam, but since you were too confident about your driving skills, you fail the driving test

This matters because we face uncertainty on a daily basis, and in order to effectively navigate the world, we need to act in a rational manner

The hard-easy effect essentially suggests that we are not being realistic with our abilities and often misplace our confidence

We can avoid this effect through external feedback or honest self-assessment

Focusing Illusion

Nothing is ever as important as what you’re thinking about while you’re thinking about it

Worrying about a thing makes the thing being worried about seem worse than it is

As Marcus Aurelius observed, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Reputation Fragility

Reputations are fragile. A person or business gets judged by the worst of their behaviour, and that makes them vulnerable at any point in time

As Warren Buffett says: "It takes 20 years to build a reputation and 5 minutes to ruin it.”

Noise Bottleneck

We think the more information we consume the more signal we’ll consume

However, our ability to comprehend the relevant from the irrelevant becomes compromised in this case

We put too much emphasis on irrelevant data and lose sight of what’s really important

Serpico Effect

The tendency to rationalize an action because everyone else is doing it

Think corporate, government, or police corruption

Named after Frank Serpico, who became known for whistleblowing on police corruption in the late 1960s and early 1970s

Compassion Face

The tendency to have more compassion for victims within small groups than larger groups, because the smaller the group the easier it is to identify individual victims

One victim can break our hearts while larger groups seem more distanced1

Three Men Make a Tiger

The tendency to accept absurd information as long as it's repeated enough times

If one person tells you there’s a tiger in town, you might assume they’re lying. If two people tell you, you begin to wonder

If three tell you, you might start running!

Buridan's Ass

A type of decision paralysis where two equally good options lead to no decision

Described by the example of an Ass that's stuck between two stacks of hay of equal size and quality, and can't decide which to eat, causing it to starve to death from indecision


Related to first-conclusion and confirmation bias, the Semmelweis reflex is the tendency to reject new evidence or new information because it contradicts established norms, beliefs, or paradigms

Mcnamara Fallacy

The belief that rational decisions are made solely on the basis of quantitative evidence, ignoring all other factors

Don’t presume that what can’t be measured isn’t really important

Courtesy Bias

The resistance to giving an honest opinion due to a desire not to offend the person or organization in question

Example: Employees hesitant to give an honest opinion to their superiors, clogging information flow for rational decision making in a company

Lucid Fallacy

Identified by @nntaleb, the ludic fallacy is the tendency to falsely associate simulations with real life

Because simulations are designed as “narrow worlds of game and dice”, they fail to account for chaos regarding future events in the real world

Abilene Paradox (Pluralistic Ignorance)

The situation where a group decides to make a decision that is counter to the thoughts and feelings of its individual members in the group

It happens because the members fail to communicate their individual beliefs

Collective Narcissism

The tendency to exaggerate the positive image and importance of a group that one belongs to

Normalcy Bias

The tendency to believe threats and disasters are not at all probable due to a belief that things will remain as they always have

Behavioural Inevitability

The notion that human behavior, and its inherent biases, will always remain

As Voltaire said: History never repeats itself; man always does

False Uniqueness Effect

An attributional cognitive error of assuming that one’s qualities, traits, and personal attributes are unique when in reality they are not

In essence, it’s the opposite of imposter syndrome

Positive Illusions

A form of self-deception that causes individuals to think inflatedly about themselves and their abilities to avoid short-term discomfort or raise self-esteem

A positive illusion might cause a negative spiral of justifications about worse and worse decisions

Ironic Process Theory

The psychological process of attempting to suppress certain thoughts, making those thoughts more likely to resurface in one’s mind

An example is how when someone is actively trying not to think of a bear they may actually be more likely to imagine one

Aumann's Agreement Theorem

The notion that two rational people in an opposing argument can’t and shouldn’t come to the conclusion of agreeing to disagree if they have common knowledge of each other’s beliefs

In other words, it's a cop out or lazy to settle for this

Ostrich Effect

Ostriches bury their heads in the sand to avoid danger. The ostrich effect is the tendency to avoid opposing information to what one desperately wants to be right

Can mean avoiding believing negative information and allowing a problem to become a bigger problem

Bounded Rationality

Limits to the capacity of the mind make it impossible to contain and recall all information obtained, and therefore, rationality is also limited

This causes us to make choices that are satisfactory rather than optimal (to satisfice, rather than optimize)

Fluency Heuristic

Related to the narrative fallacy, fluency heuristic is the tendency to believe more in ideas that are easy to explain rather than those that are hard to comprehend

Persian Messenger Syndrome

The act of blaming the bearer of negative news

Ancient Persians actually killed some messengers whose sole fault was that they brought home truthful bad news, say, of a battle lost

Okrent's Law

A law stated by writer Daniel Okrent referring to the phenomenon of the press providing legitimacy to unsupported fringe viewpoints in an effort to appear even-handed

He once said: The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true

Veirordt's Law

In 1868, German physiologist Karl von Vierordt created this law stating that humans perceive time at different magnitudes over different durations

We underestimate long periods of time and overestimate short periods of time

Cunningham's Law

The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question. It’s to post the wrong answer

If you express anger in your private conversations, your friends will find you tiresome, but when there’s an audience, outrage can boost status

Delayed Gratification

The process an individual undergoes when resisting the temptation of an immediate reward in preference for a later reward

We live in a world of instant gratification: those who master the power of delayed gratification are the ones who win long term

Base Rate Neglect

A tendency to ignore the a priori probability of something by putting heavier weight on appealing information about an individual’s case

Only 3% of applicants make it into this school, but my daughter is brilliant. I’m sure they’re going to accept her!

Neglect of Probability

The tendency to disregard probability in decision making under uncertainty. Small risks are either neglected entirely or hugely overrated

Hindsight bias is a common result of the tendency to neglect probability

Friendship Paradox

Most people have fewer friends than their friends have, on average

People with more friends are more likely to be one of your friends (sampling bias)

In reality, it's a contradiction because most people believe they have more friends than their friends have

Woozle Effect

When frequent citation of previous information that lacks evidence misleads individuals into believing it’s evidence

"A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth”

Ringelmann Effect

As a group size increases, individuals tend to become increasingly less productive

Consider a tug of war. As more people are involved, their average performance tends to decrease because each participant feels that their own effort is not critical

Group Attribution Error

Falsely assuming that the views and decision outcomes of a collective group reflect the view of each member in that group, even when information is available that indicates that all members do not support the decision

Closely related to stereotyping

90-9-1 Rule

In a social media network (E.g., Twitter), only 1 percent of users will actively create content; another 9 percent will participate by commenting, rating, or sharing the content; and the last 90 percent will watch, look and read without interacting

Braess's Paradox

An observation by German mathematician Dietrich Braess who noticed that adding a road to a particular congested road traffic network would make traffic worse due to an increase in shortcuts becoming popular and overcrowded

Pollyanna Principle

It’s easier to actively remember pleasant memories than bad ones

The mind tends to focus on the optimistic at the subconscious level, while it tends to focus on the negative at the conscious level

Empathy Gap

Underestimating the way behaviour is largely affected by one’s mental state when you're not currently in that mental state

If you feel calm, you'll find it difficult to predict how you'll act if someone angers you

Meat Paradox

Many of us experience the 'meat paradox', whereby we simultaneously care for animals such as cows, yet also consume them as meat

Applies to many other moral issues where we stay in the 'dark', to protect the illusion that we are morally consistent and sensible

Emotional Contagion

The automatic adoption of the emotional state of another person through observation; some are more susceptible to cues than others

Happiness and misery love company

Be careful who you spend your time around, their energy is infectious

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic arises when you find something personally or intrinsically rewarding, while extrinsic comes from incentives or punishment

Intrinsic is a better source of long-term motivation, but extrinsic can be used effectively in the short-term

Big Five Personality Traits

The most academically accepted model of basic personality traits, sometimes referred to as the OCEAN model: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism

These factors exist on a continuum and encompass several subfactors

DISC Model

A model of human behaviour commonly used in business settings describing four distinct temperaments that can be found in individuals

D: Dominance

I: Influence

S: Steadiness

C: Compliance

Instrumental Conditioning

Occurs when you choose to continue, or discontinue, a behaviour based on the positive or negative reinforcement you've received for that behaviour previously

Also known as "trial-and-error" learning

Blind spot

An area of thought or perception that goes unchecked and can have negative consequences

Something you systematically overlook either intentionally, but more likely, subconsciously. It leads to a distortion of reality and inferior thinking

Choice-supportive bias

The tendency to remember our choices as better than they actually were

We choose option A over B, we are likely to dismiss faults of A, while amplifying faults of B. Conversely, we'll amplify the advantages of A and de-emphasize those of option B

Denomination Effect

We are less likely to spend money in the form of large bills relative to the equivalent amount in smaller bills

A $50 note has the same value as 10 $5 notes, but we will invariably spend the lower value notes before we even think of touching the $50

Decoy Effect

Describes how, when we are choosing between two alternatives, the addition of a third, less attractive option (decoy) can influence our perception of the original two choices

Distinction Bias

Describes how, in decision-making, we tend to overvalue the differences between two options when we examine them together

Conversely, we consider these differences to be less important when we evaluate the options separately

Duration Neglect

The psychological principle that the length of an experience has little effect on the memory of that event

The overall rating is determined by the peak intensity of the experience and the end of the experience (Peak-end rule)

Endowment effect

When you place a higher value on an object that you already own compared to the same object if you didn't own it

Start from zero, what would the product be worth to you if you didn't own it? Don't form emotional attachments without good reason

Exaggerated expectation

The tendency to expect or predict more extreme outcomes than those outcomes that actually happen

Example: worrying about an upcoming public speech and picturing the worst-case scenario. In reality, nothing happens and it's fine.


The tendency to place too much focus or emphasis on a single factor or piece of information when making judgments or predictions

“Nothing in life is quite as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”

Illusion of Validity

The tendency to be overconfident in the accuracy of our judgements, specifically in our interpretations and predictions regarding a given data set

To cope with the world, we construct narratives that provide a coherent explanation for random occurrences

Illusory correlation

When we see an association between two variables (events, actions, ideas, etc.) when they aren’t actually associated

We tend to overestimate the importance of events we can easily recall and then make associations between them

Information Bias

A type of bias or error that can occur when researchers are unable to collect accurate data

A flaw in measuring exposure, covariate, or outcome variables that results in different quality (accuracy) of information between comparison groups

Impact bias

The tendency for people to overestimate the length or the intensity of future emotional states

You think it will take longer to recover emotionally from disaster than it actually will

Irrational escalation

The phenomenon where people increase their investment in a decision despite new evidence suggesting that the decision was probably wrong

May include money ("throwing good money after bad"), time, or — in the case of military strategy — human lives

Less-is-better effect

People sometimes prefer the worse of two options, but only when the options are presented separately

When people consider both their choices together, their preferences reverse, so that the less-is-better effect disappears

Money illusion

The tendency to view wealth and income in nominal dollar terms, rather than recognize their real value, adjusted for inflation

Inflation matters

Moral Credential effect

The subconscious tendency whereby increased confidence and security in one's self-image tends to make you worry less about the consequences of subsequent immoral behavior and, therefore, more likely to make immoral choices and act immorally

Outcome bias

An error made in evaluating the quality of a decision when the outcome of that decision is already known

Involves judging a past decision by its ultimate outcome rather than the quality of the decision at the time it was made, given what was known at that time

Overconfidence effect

Where subjective confidence in your own judgments is reliably greater than the objective accuracy of those judgments, especially when confidence is relatively high

Known as the most "pervasive and potentially catastrophic" of all the cognitive biases

Pro-innovation bias

Believing an innovation should be adopted by all of society without the need for close examination of its limitations or weaknesses

Example: The atomic bomb. Many legislators promoted widespread adoption without close examination of pitfalls and dangers

Pseudocertainty effect

The tendency to perceive an outcome as certain when it's actually uncertain in multi-stage decision making

The evaluation of the certainty of the outcome in a previous stage of decisions is disregarded when selecting an option in subsequent stages

Reactive devaluation

The tendency to disparage proposals made by another party, especially if this party is viewed as negative or antagonistic

We should always assess proposals on their merits, not on their proposer's merits. Further, we should optimise for long-term outcomes

Restraint bias

Our tendency to overestimate the level of control we have over our impulsive behaviours

These urges typically come from “primal impulses” such as hunger, drug cravings, fatigue, or sexual arousal

Hack: Out of sight, out of mind—take temptation out of view

Rhyme as a reason effect

We are more likely to believe statements that contain a rhyme, compared to statements that don't

"Woes unite foes"

"Woes unite enemies"

"Misfortune unites enemies"

Which seems more believable? Be wary of this in advertising or persuasion

Selective perception

The tendency not to notice and more quickly forget stimuli that cause emotional discomfort and contradict our prior beliefs

Can cause issues when you allow small problems to become bigger problems through a lack of appropriate attention

Social comparison bias

The tendency to have feelings of dislike and competitiveness with someone seen as physically or mentally better than oneself

Remember: We are only competing against our past selves—be better than you were yesterday

Subadditivity effect

The tendency to judge the probability of the whole to be less than the probabilities of the parts

When assigning probabilities to questions or problems, decomposition into small parts to ensure probabilities and risks are understood at a more granular level

Subjective Validation

Believing or accepting an idea or statement if it presents to you in a personal and positive way

Example: you enjoy eating bacon and come across an article that talks about bacon as healthy, you'll believe it more because this "validates" eating more bacon

Time-saving bias

Misestimating the time that could be saved (or lost) when increasing (or decreasing) speed

Not limited to driving, can also apply in areas like healthcare, where we misestimate the effect of adding or subtracting physicians on waiting times

Road well-travelled effect

Where travellers (or commuters) estimate the time taken to traverse routes differently depending on their familiarity with the route

Frequently travelled routes are assessed as taking a shorter time than unfamiliar routes

Unit Bias

The tendency to think of a unit (rather than a fraction or %) of something as the appropriate or optimal amount

If you’ve ever felt you should finish the chapter of the book you were reading before placing it on the nightstand, then you’ve felt the nudge of unit bias

Zero-sum heuristic

Judging a situation to be zero-sum (i.e., person A's gain is person B's loss) when it is actually non-zero-sum (both parties can gain together)

"There’s a false notion that poor countries are poor because rich countries are rich."

- Michael Miller

Egocentric bias

The tendency to rely too heavily on your own point of view when examining events or trying to see things from other people’s perspective

Example: You overestimate the amount of work that you contributed to a group project

Extrinsic incentive bias

The tendency to attribute other people's motives to extrinsic incentives, such as job security or high wages, rather than intrinsic ones, such as learning new things or building a new skill

Illusion of transparency

The tendency for people to overestimate the degree to which their personal mental state is known by others

Also applies to overestimating how well we understand others personal mental states

Illusion of external agency

The false belief that good and positive things happen because of external influences rather than personal effort.

For example, you get good grades in school and attribute that to external variables ("The teacher likes me" or "I got lucky")

Illusory superiority

The tendency to overestimate your positive qualities and abilities and to underestimate negative qualities, relative to others

Applies to intelligence, performance on tasks, and the possession of desirable characteristics or personality traits

Projection bias

A self-forecasting error, where we overestimate how much our future selves will share the same beliefs, values and behaviours as our current selves, causing us to make short-sighted decisions

Trait ascription bias

The tendency for people to view themselves as relatively variable in terms of personality, behavior and mood while viewing others as much more predictable in their personal traits across different situations

Worse-than-average effect

The tendency to underestimate one's achievements and capabilities in relation to others

Related to imposter syndrome and is the opposite of the usually pervasive better-than-average effect (Dunning-Kruger effect)

Ultimate Attribution error

We tend to attribute good acts by friends to their character, and bad acts by friends to situational factors

For enemies (or people we dislike), it’s reversed: good acts are attributed to situational factors and bad acts to character

Change bias

Remembering the past as more difficult than it actually was

After exerting effort and causing a change in some area, this bias makes you believe your journey and work were more difficult than they actually were

"When I was a boy... things weren't so easy”

Childhood amnesia

The inability of adults to retrieve memories before the age of two to four years, as well as the period before the age of ten, of which some older adults retain fewer memories than might otherwise be expected given the passage of time

Context effect

An event is more favourably perceived and remembered when the surrounding environment is comfortable and appealing

Cross-race effect

A facial recognition phenomenon in which individuals show superior performance in identifying faces of their own race when compared with memory for faces of another, less familiar race

Fading affect bias

The tendency for memories associated with negative emotions to be forgotten more quickly than those associated with positive emotions

This helps us forget bad experiences more readily

Generation effect (Self-generation effect)

The tendency for information to be better remembered when it is self-generated as opposed to passively consumed

Explains why active recall is one of the most effective learning and retention techniques

Humor effect

The tendency for humorous items to be remembered more easily than non-humorous ones

Potentially explained by the increased cognitive processing time to understand the humor, or the emotional arousal caused by the humor

Lag effect

We retain information better when there are longer breaks between repeated presentations of that information

The lag effect suggests that the longer the time between repetitions of information, the more likely we are to commit that information to memory

Levelling and sharpening

Levelling and sharpening are processes we use during memory recollection

Levelling refers to the tendency to omit minor details and distinctions, whereas sharpening occurs when certain aspects of a memory are exaggerated or made more profound

List-length effect

As the length of a list gets longer, a greater number of items are actually remembered

When you go shopping and forget your list, you remember only a few items—this happens whether it's a short or a long list. If it's long, you'll tend to remember more

Misinformation effect

The tendency for post-event information to interfere with the memory of the original event

For example, if a question contains misleading information, it can distort the memory of an event. This can lead to inaccurate or false memories

Misattribution of memory effect

The tendency to remember what took place and the specific piece of information, but not where it came from

"I've heard about this, but I can't remember where from, so it's hard to justify it”

That's it, thanks for reading!

If you got value out of this, I’d appreciate you sharing it or my Twitter profile on Twitter so others can get wiser too :)

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