Visualize All the Dominoes

Mental Model #2: Visualize All the Dominoes. We are a shortsighted species. We think only one step ahead in terms of consequences, and then we typically only limit it to our own consequences. We need to engage in second-order thinking and visualize all the dominos that could be falling. Without this, it can’t be said that you are making a well-informed decision.

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When faced with the need to make a decision, most of us only consider the immediate impact that decision will have – especially if it’s a time-sensitive or urgent one. We think in terms of one domino ahead; life is never so simple and quarantined. What about the rest of the dominoes? They don’t simply disappear.
We perceive most of our everyday decisions as isolated situations that don’t have a ton of consequences, positive or negative. We practice a disturbing lack of foresight on a daily basis because that’s how we’re biologically wired as humans, and yet our instincts don’t serve us very well here. Typical human thinking cannot be faulted: I step on a nail, and I jump to the side in pain and end up falling off a cliff. It just happens.
This is generally known as first-order thinking, and it is where we focus exclusively on resolving a question or decision at hand and don’t consider the more long-lasting ramifications or how our decision will play out in the distant future. If it helps, call it first-domino thinking.
But many of our decisions, especially the ones we toss and turn over at night, have consequences that extend beyond what we can see right before us. In terms of consequences, humans are as blind as bats. Small decisions one might make could result in effects down the road they didn’t foresee, resulting in a sort of butterfly effect. The outcome isn’t just limited to the immediate changes we’ve decided upon – other people or situations can be affected as well. Some of them may have been truly unpredictable, and some might be invisible until they rear their ugly heads. Others, though, only catch us by surprise because we didn’t think the situation through quite deeply enough.
Okay, you’ve heard enough about what not to do, so what should we do? Visualize all the dominoes, otherwise known as second-order thinking.
This is simply trying to project into the future and extrapolate a range of consequences that you can use to conduct a cost-benefit analysis for your decisions or solutions. Instead of merely being satisfied about buying a new apartment, think about what it means for your credit, debt, and ability to own a huge dog in the future. Instead of bleaching your hair every week, consider that your bald spots have been increasing due to the harsh bleach and that a toupee may be soon necessary.
Yes, second-order thinking has the usual effect of making you think twice about what you’re doing and helps eliminate rash decisions, as you might expect when you consider the prolonged aftermath of your choices. It’s the practice of seeking out as much information as possible to make measured decisions.
What’s the first domino to fall after a decision? Now what are the three paths that can lead to? And where do those lead? You simply don’t stop your analysis once the most obvious situations are articulated. Instead, you consider as many long-term, possible ramifications as you can. How will your decision cause other dominoes to fall? If you tip this domino, which other dominoes will you be unable to tip because of time or effort (opportunity cost)?
Famous investor Howard Marks provides a dead simple way this can apply to daily life:
A good example can be seen in the hypothetical newspaper contest John Maynard Keynes wrote about in 1936. Readers would be shown 100 photos and asked to choose the six prettiest girls, with prizes going to the readers who chose the girls readers voted for most often. Naive entrants would try to win by picking the prettiest girls. But note that the contest would reward the readers who chose not the prettiest girls, but the most popular. Thus the road to winning would lie not in figuring out which were the prettiest, but in predicting which girls the average entrant would consider prettiest. Clearly, to do so, the winner would have to be a second-level thinker. (The first-level thinker wouldn’t even recognize the difference.)
This can be carried one step further to take into account the fact that other entrants would each have their own opinion of what public perceptions are. Thus the strategy can be extended to the next order and the next and so on, at each level attempting to predict the eventual outcome of the process based on the reasoning of other agents.

It is not a case of choosing those faces that, to the best of one’s judgment, are really the prettiest, nor even those that average opinion genuinely thinks the prettiest. We have reached the third degree where we devote our intelligences to anticipating what average opinion expects the average opinion to be. And there are some, I believe, who practice the fourth, fifth and higher degrees.

Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, 1936

Think about it this way: very rarely does something happen with no chain of events to follow. It’s your job to look past the positive reinforcement and gratification you may receive, which frankly may be blinding you, and understand what could go wrong, how wrong it could go, and why it might go wrong. What if you viewed each decision as having the potential to topple 15 other dominoes and set about identifying them? Tedious yet informative.
Second-order thinking allows you to project the totality of your decisions. Even if you don’t change your decision because of what you determine through second-order thinking, you think through ten times as many scenarios and thus make far more informed choices than you would otherwise. Sometimes, that’s the best we can do as a person. We can’t predict the future, but we can’t not think about it.
If second-order thinking’s so great, then why doesn’t everybody do it? Because it’s hard. Humans aren’t a shining example of doing the right thing on a consistent basis. Just look at our diets and how much money the weight loss industry generates on an annual basis. Questioning how our actions will affect situations beyond what’s right in front of us takes probing into the unknown and leads one into a labyrinth of thinking that can be strenuous or complicated. Other people might say we’re “overthinking” a decision or problem.
The fact is, second-order thinking allows you to think clearly – at least more clearly than your competition. Most of the time, that matters. Nobody ever rises above average through making the obvious choices or accepting the most convenient, simplest answers. Being able to project and foresee happenings on a deeper, futuristic level is a hallmark of successful people and almost always turns out to be worth the extra effort. Adopting this mental model will improve your decision-making and stop letting things slip through the cracks.
To think in a second-order fashion, Howard Marks provides some guiding questions.
How broadly will this decision affect things in the future? What will your decision do beyond change your immediate concerns? What concerns will be created? Will your decision’s purpose be fulfilled?
Which result do I think will happen? Think beyond the simple resolution of the most immediate problem: if you take this course of action, what effect will it have if it succeeds or fails? What do those outcomes look like? What do semi-success and semi-failure look like? This naturally leads to the next question.
What are the chances that I will succeed or be right? From an objective standpoint as possible, what is the probability that your assessment is accurate? Is your prediction realistic or at least a little steeped in fantasy or paranoia? Every decision has a cost-benefit ratio to it. Are you too openly courting failure or semi-failure?
What does everybody else think? Hopefully you have access to at least one or two people – optimally more – who will give you an honest opinion about your prediction and whether they think you’re on the right track or not. Although you shouldn’t be unduly swayed by popular opinion, it’s beneficial to know how your forecast is received. Consensus in numbers isn’t really something to be preached, but rather, a complete lack of reality usually works alone, so you are really just trying to prevent the latter.
How is what I think different from everyone else? What are the prime splitting points between what you think and what popular knowledge and opinion dictates? What specific aspects of your information and prediction are different and why? What are they based on? What could I be missing? And again, this naturally leads to the final point.
What dominoes do other people visualizing falling? Regardless of whether you actually have someone to bounce your ideas off of, the point of this last question is to step out of your own biased perspective and view decisions as other people. Actively seek out and articulate the domino chain that other people might see, and see how the dominoes fall from their perspective. Not all perspectives are valid, but this gives you more information.
Remember, this mental model’s purpose is to expose and inform. We can’t circumvent our human instinct of jumping to conclusions and deciding on a whim entirely, but we can be a bit more methodical about decision factors.
This mental model very well could have been named “Ignore the Monkey’s Paw” but that seemed unnecessarily morbid. So instead, I’ll just briefly recount the origins of the Monkey’s Paw and you can decide for yourself which is more effective in forcing you to examine secondary consequences.
The Monkey’s Paw is a short story written by W.W. Jacobs in 1902. It’s about a man who finds a blessed (or cursed?) monkey’s paw, which will grant him three wishes. Little does the man know that even though each wish will be technically fulfilled, there will be harsh consequences.
For his first wish, he wishes for $200. The next day, his son is killed at work, and the company gives the man $200 as payment. For his second wish, he wishes for his son back. In a short amount of time, he hears a knock at the door, and when he peers outside, he discovers that it is his son’s mutilated and decomposing body. Frightened beyond belief, his third wish is for his son to disappear. Unintended consequences matter!