Mental Simulations

Mental models and mental simulations: how important are they to good strategy? The evidence from history and modern science indicates that they are indespensible.

Sun Tzu's strategy for quickly comparing positions depends on mental simulations. This system arose on the battlefield from the life and death need to understand situations that appear, at first glance, to be completely chaotic. In French, the skills of rapid strategic cognition and adaptive thinking is called "coup d'oeil," the "power of the glance." This is what the French called Napoleon's ability and the term that Von Clausewitz used in his book, On War, to describe strategic situation awareness. 

Simplifying with Mental Models

This form of trained reflexes can be taught from mental simulations, which are mental models that have moving parts.1 Studies into how people use mental simulations started with studies of chess masters by Andre De Groot in 1946. An examination of seventy-nine studies of mental simulations demonstrated by Gary Klein in his work, Sources of Power, found that these mental simulations cannot be very complicated. Generally, they can consist of no more than six movements and three moving parts. More complicated models are difficult for people to remember and manipulate in their minds. Simpler models, however, fail to capture important elements of the situation. As Albert Einstein said describing scientific theories, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."

2,500 years ago, Sun Tzu created a series of such mental simulations that modeled the way competition works. All of these models were developed at the right level of complexity. His construct for understanding a strategic position has five elements, but only three of them "moving". His model for advancing a position has four steps. And, of course, many of his models are simple recognition-primed decisions: if this situation then this response where the response takes the form of a single step, and the complexity is in recognizing the specific pattern.

General Rules for Specific Situations

Another key to building useful mental models is to work at the right level of abstraction.2 Models that are too general are more broad but more difficult to apply, but more specific models apply to only a smaller number of cases. Sun Tzu bridges this gap by providing general, easily memorable models, such as the five-element model, with a large number of very specific applications: five character qualities, five types of spies, five character flaws, and so on. These models are all connected through their networked structure.

How Mental Models Fail

The biggest handicap of mental simulations is that they tend to explain away disconfirming evidence.3 However, the rules that Sun Tzu employs offer an alternative to analytical and procedural models. For example, the most obvious way to model an army is in terms of troop size, arrangement, equipment, and armament, that is, as a Greek phalanx or a cavalry troop. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu did not develop his system as a replacement for linear processes. He obviously expected linear processes to be used in side-by-side to his strategy for decision-making by comparison. However, in reading his work, you have no idea what procedural methods, formations, or armaments were used in the Chinese period because those systems are technically outside of his decision-making paradigm.

Sun Tzu purposefully chose a level of abstraction that omitted the types of details always covered by more process-oriented simulations. This concept offers a revolutionary design feature allows his simulations to be used as a cross check for other, more objective analytical methods. This creates what the researcher Marvin Cohen calls "snap back," an alternative viewpoint bringing decisions back into sync with reality.

The Risk of Overconfidence,

This is important because research into the use of mental simulation shows that they often fail because people are too confident in them.4 Sun Tzu recognizes this problem explicitly in his work. Objective methods of modeling competitions propose to be deterministic. This expectation of completely predictable results is, in Sun Tzu's view, extremely risky. His methods were adaptive, an experimental loop. He taught the use of small, safe experiments to explore the many unknowns in every situation.

We react to the current situation with an eye to the future because we can never know exactly what the next moment will bring. Positioning is everything in Sun Tzu's science because we always have to think about how our reaction to a given situation affects our over all position. Every situation and every reaction must be judged in relationship to our position as a whole.

Training through Exercise

Mental models are only useful if we can practice using them, first in training then in real life. It is easy to construct strategic systems that are impractical, except for consultants. Though developed at a useful level of abstraction, Sun Tzu's mental simulations can be written down and charted out on paper. We can train people to use them through game and scenarios that retrain people's instincts. This means that they can change the habitual ways that people think and, eventually, react. His models can be used to develop what the researcher Pierre Wack called "decision scenarios" for the specific purpose of training people's decision-making skills.5 Unlike conventional plans and forecasts, decision scenarios aren't built to provide the answers but to give people a sense of the forces at work. As Wack wrote:

"Scenarios must help decision makers develop their own feel for the nature of the system, the forces at work within it, the uncertainties underlying the alternate scenarios, and the concepts useful in interpreting key data."


There are only two ways to develop the right instincts for making good decisions under competitive pressure: through learning and practicing the use of mental simulations or through the trial and error of experience. While nothing replaces experience, a proven mental model can help you apply that experience with greater understanding. This is the advantage of Sun Tzu's system.

Learning a mental model of a situation is one thing. Learning to use that model as an expert requires practice with using it. Only experience fleshes out Sun Tzu's rules-based models transforming them from conceptual constructs into practical tools. People who master Sun Tzu's models see a dramatic difference in the success of their decision-making. One of the most common results they report is the ability to see things about their situation that they were unable to see before. This ability is known as seeing the invisible.

1 Klein & Crandall, 1995, "The role of mental simulations in naturalistic decision-making," Local Applications of the Ecological Approach to Human-Machine System, Erlbaum
2 Klein, The Sources of Power, 1999
3 Cohen, 1997, "Training the Naturalistic Decision-Maker", Naturalistic Decision Making, Erlbaum
4 Hirt & Sherman, 1985, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
5 Pierre Wack, 1985, Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead, & Scenarios: Shooting the Rapid, Harvard Business Review