Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration

By Jen Badham and Gabriele Bammer

Jen Badham (biography)

What is a mental model? How do mental models influence interdisciplinary collaboration? What processes can help tease out differences in mental models?

Mental models

Let’s start with mental models. What does the word ‘chair’ mean to you? Do you have an image of a chair, perhaps a wooden chair with four legs and a back, an office chair with wheels, or possibly a comfortable lounge chair from which you watch television? Maybe you do not have an image at all, but instead have a collection of associations such as ‘sit’ and ‘relax’ or ‘working at computer’ that together provide a definition.

Gabriele Bammer (biography)

However you think about the word ‘chair’, you will have some central concept that allows you to categorise something as a chair even if it differs from every other chair you have previously seen. The full picture of your experiences with chairs is abstracted to include only a small number of key characteristics and each of those is idealised or simplified. The central concept that emerges is a mental model that is applied when faced with a new potential chair. Mental models apply, for instance, for concrete objects like ‘chair’, abstract concepts like ‘trust’, and geographical locations like ‘Sydney’.

However, each person’s experiences are unique and they may attach different importance to particular features. Mental models can therefore differ. For example, let us explore further the concept of ‘chair’. A person who considers shape to be important may exclude beanbags and perhaps stools from the category of ‘chair’, but these may both be included by a person who uses the function of providing something to sit upon as the defining characteristic.

A useful exercise to illustrate this point is to present pictures of many different items that can be sat on, including other furniture and sculptures, and ask people to raise their hands if they consider the item to be a chair. Disagreements always provoke lively discussion.

Personal mental models contribute to a common language, allowing two or more people to share and refine the general concept. For some concepts, such as ‘chair’, people tend to have similar experiences and there is substantial overlap in their mental models.

Mental models and interdisciplinarity

In research projects that cross disciplines, however, it is a common experience to suddenly realise that different team members are using the same terms in different ways. This is because each discipline builds up its own associations with a term that reflects the special interest of that discipline. Part of becoming a specialist involves being inculcated with particular mental models, the expert knowledge of that discipline.

For example, an economist thinks of ‘values’ as benefits that may be gained from goods or services, a mathematician as numbers calculated for a variable and a philosopher as ethical principles.

There is even greater potential for confusion when it is not just terminology that is being used in different ways, but instead different concepts of what is important in a complex system of many entities and the relationships among them.

Researchers and stakeholders have mental models about situations and aspects of the world they inhabit, capturing the features that are most important to them from their experiences and making causal or other connections from observed patterns or received knowledge. Those mental models underpin the attitudes and beliefs they bring to the examination of a complex system.

To take a simple example, ‘low rainfall’ may be associated with drought and economic hardship for agricultural scientists, good weather and profitability for tourism researchers, the need for increased irrigation, pressure on rivers and potential conflict for sustainability scientists and improved survival of some plant species over others with consequent effects on other aspects of the ecology for biodiversity specialists.

Only by communicating their mental models can people investigate the similarities and differences between what each of them has captured as important from their experiences. In an earlier blog post Deana Pennington also identified the importance of developing “external representations” of mental models.

Identifying differences in mental models

Jointly designing a diagrammatic, mathematical and other formal model of a system is a particularly effective way of drawing out differences in mental models of complex systems. Designing a model requires a thorough specification of how a model is to ‘work’, and the rigour of that design process reveals the mental models of the participants. Just as different responses to whether something is a chair generates discussion about how to define a chair, the process of describing the important elements of a system in detail and how they influence each other promotes discussion of different understandings of that system.

For some projects, such discussions about how to design the model may be more valuable than actually building the model. Indeed such discussions may lead to new shared understanding about the problem that may even stimulate new ideas about how to respond to it.

Have you had the experience of suddenly recognising that someone else was using a term in a relevantly different way? What sorts of learning came out of the discussion refining that term? What tools, methods or practices have you found effective for drawing out differences in mental models?

Biography: Jen Badham is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Health, Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland. She has worked as both a modeller and policy advisor and is currently interested in the way in which social networks influence changes in behaviour. She is member of the Core Modeling Practices pursuit which is part of the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” funded by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

Biography: Gabriele Bammer is a professor at The Australian National University in the Research School of Population Health’s National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health. She is developing the new discipline of Integration and Implementation Sciences (I2S) to improve research strengths for tackling complex real-world problems through synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She leads the theme “Building Resources for Complex, Action-Oriented Team Science” at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC).

16 thoughts on “Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration”

  1. As somebody in the public sector (academics), the word “chair” means “head of an academic department” — I honestly thought of that definition before it occurred to me that it was something to be sat upon. I’m in the process of leaving the public sector for the private one, and thinking about how our mental models influences how we understand words and concepts is important for me. I’ll need to ask lots of clarifying questions as I network and apply for industry positions!

  2. I’d like to add a clarification for the statement “For some projects, such discussions about how to design the model may be more valuable than actually building the model.”
    I would say that this is the case only when a path forward is blocked by hidden or conflicting mental models. The path may also be blocked by inability to reason using the mental model, e.g. due to its complexity or due to cognitive biases. In that case, building the model is needed so that formal reasoning can be used.
    The point at which model conceptualisation is insufficient is, however, not clear cut, e.g. basic reasoning can be performed using a causal loop diagram even without specifying equations and data.

    • I generally agree, though I think ‘conflicting’ can be read in two ways and may imply a level of antagonism that is not required. It is quite common for the mental models to be different simply because of more or less knowledge about aspects of the issue. Filling in those gaps can immediately close off some paths that had been proposed or open up different ones.

  3. I like your way of highlighting the role and challenge of mental models in interdisciplinary work. One of the delights and benefits of interdisciplinary work that takes the time to explore mental models is that we can gain a greater appreciation of the embedded power and constraint of our own mental models. We begin to see our thinking as shaped by mental models, language and metaphor that we had become so familiar with that we lose a sense of how the mental model functions for us. I particularly like the work of Donald Schon on the way in which metaphors function as mental models and their power in innovation (See, Schön, D. (1963). Displacement of Concepts. Tavistock Publications, London.

    • Very good point Graeme. Awareness of our own mental model being a construct of our experience and that of our professional genre, in combination with empathy for practitioners of other disciplines, the team can build a shared consensual and more comprehensive abstraction of the problem.

      Further, the importance of ‘externalising’ mental models, as a key part of collaboration, as discussed in the article and a linked post, should never be understated. Be it visualisation e.g. sketches like Rich Picture or discussion, the common ground which emerges, provides a more robust representation of the problem, which in turn will lend itself more readily to translation into solutions.

  4. A collaborative project focused upon the needs of vulnerable young people involved a wide a variety of partners. They all agreed that their activities needed to be ‘youth centred’. They commenced their work — and problems soon followed; the collaboration was beset with conflicts and arguments. Eventually, and somewhat belatedly, the partners realised they had different mental models of what it meant to be ‘youth centred’: some believed it meant ensuring all resources were focused upon young people; some believed it meant involving young people in the decision-making and planning of the project. When, through careful discussion, they created a shared mental model for what it meant to be ‘youth centred’, the partners began making progress. This example shows that it is sometimes the apparently simple and ‘obvious’ things we think and speak about which can (often spectacularly) catch us out.

    • Thank you for the comments, I particularly like the imagery of ‘partial visions’. An important point that you make that we did not draw out is that the conceptual differences arise in two ways – using the same term for different concepts and using different terms for the same concept.


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