Can mapping mental models improve research implementation?

By Katrin Prager

Katrin Prager (biography)

We all have different mental models of the environment and the people around us. They help us make sense of what we experience. In a recent project exploring how to improve soil management (PDF 250KB), Michiel Curfs and I used data collected from Spanish farmers and our own experience to develop and compare the mental model of a typical Spanish farmer growing olives with that of a hypothetical scientist. How did their mental models of soil degradation differ? Mainly in terms of understanding the role of ploughing, and the importance of drivers for certain soil management activities. There were only a few areas of overlap: both scientist and farmer were concerned about fire risk and acknowledged weeds. We emphasise the importance of two-way communication, and recommend starting by focusing on areas of overlap and then moving to areas that are different. Without integrating understandings from both mental models, the scientist will carry on making recommendations for reducing soil degradation that the farmer cannot implement or does not find relevant.

Katie Moon and Vanessa Adams used a more elaborate approach to map natural resource managers’ mental models of invasive species management (2MB PDF available from linked page). Interestingly, they also highlight the overlap in beliefs about the management system as a valuable starting point for communication, and they also expect that processes of negotiation and interaction in developing a shared mental model could broaden the understanding of management and stimulate communication and learning, potentially leading to more effective management.

We can equally apply the concept of mental models to scientists from different disciplines. They may be open to collaboration, but their understanding of what the problem is and therefore their views on solutions can seriously restrict joint work. There is benefit in mapping mental models to identify areas of overlap and difference to guide discussion. This does not need to be a sophisticated number-crunching exercise; even a broad-brush capture of the mental models of those involved will bring about benefits.

A good method to uncover mental models is to use interviews as a basis from which to produce a network diagram. Concepts (nouns) are represented as nodes and directional arrows are labelled with relationship terms (mostly verbs) that show relatedness between concept nodes. This is based on semantic web analysis according to Matthew Wood and colleagues. In comparing mental models of different actors, alignments, misalignments and knowledge gaps can be described.

As an illustration, this figure above shows my mental model of how I see mental models influencing the research process

It would be good to hear about your experiences in eliciting and comparing mental models.

Moon, K. and Adams, V. M. (2016).  Using quantitative influence diagrams to map natural resource managers’ mental models of invasive species management. Land Use Policy, 50: 341-351
Online (option 1):;
Online (option 2): via Researchgate

Prager, K. and Curfs, M. (2016).  Using mental models to understand soil management. Soil Use and Management, 13 January 2016

Wood, M. D., Bostrom, A., Bridges, T. and Linkov, I. (2012).  Cognitive mapping tools: Review and risk management needs. Risk Analysis, 32, 8: 1333-1348

Biography: Katrin Prager is a senior social scientist at the James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen (Scotland). She is involved in inter- and transdisciplinary research on agri-environmental policy making and implementation, collaborative landscape management, community engagement and farmer adoption of conservation practices. Katrin investigates these topics through the lens of institutional analysis, knowledge management, adaptive capacity and organisational behaviour.

3 thoughts on “Can mapping mental models improve research implementation?”

  1. A very useful post and article. I use a cultural model approach, which seems to overlap quite a bit with a mental model approach. I have also written on farmers’ cultural model of land conservation, as well as written on soil degradation. I think it would be useful to explore how similar or different mental models are from cultural models. In anthropology, my home discipline, we use the approach of cultural models more than mental models, but again I think they overlap. Happy to share articles and ideas.

  2. Yes, indeed visualizing our different mental models can be very helpful! We benefited from group visualizations of mental models in stakeholder workshops focusing on the regional vulnerability towards climate change. Thanks for the reference to semantic web analysis! I will have a closer look into it. Maybe this would also help with a more dynamic perspective on shifting mental models, which are revised by social learning processes or new information from real life experiments.

  3. Nice article. I can confirm that experience from projects like a strategy development in a larger hospital, from product development in automotive to projects on food security in subsaharan countries. We use explorative qualitative modeling collaboratively with stakeholders. Some can be found on


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: