Understanding diversity primer: 2. Mental models

By Gabriele Bammer


What are mental models and why are they important? How do they affect how problems are framed, understood and responded to? How do they affect how well those contributing to the research work together?

Mental models are a person’s understanding of the world and how it works, and are unique to each person. They exist in a person’s mind as a set of small-scale simplified models about different aspects of reality that are functional but necessarily incomplete.

Mental models apply to all aspects of reality ranging from concrete objects such as a ‘chair;’ to abstract concepts such as ‘trust;’ to geographical locations such as ‘Sydney;’ to connections, interconnections and causal relationships; and to simple and complex situations.

In addition, mental models:

  • are based on (and limited by) a person’s knowledge, experiences, perceptions, values and beliefs
  • may be sparse or detailed, accurate or inaccurate
  • are context dependent and also influenced by the goals and motives behind the construction of any particular mental model
  • are substantially tacit and usually need explicit attention to become conscious
  • are working models and therefore dynamic, able to adapt to changing circumstances and evolve over time with learning and experience. Nevertheless, they tend to be self-reinforcing and to filter new information for congruence with what already exists. Indeed, they may determine what information a person is willing to accept and what changes they are willing to consider.
  • explain how a person reasons, makes decisions and behaves
  • shape a person’s assumptions and expectations about the actions of others.

Although each person has their own mental models, some mental models – or at least aspects of them – are commonly shared, although such sharing is rarely universal. To illustrate, take the simple example of a chair. A person’s experiences with chairs of various shapes, sizes and functions, along with associations such as relaxing or working, are abstracted to a mental model that includes only a small number of key simplified characteristics. For some people this abstraction will focus on shape, such as a horizontal ‘seat’, legs and backrest; while for others the central focus is function, namely something to sit on. When faced with an object that may or may not be a chair, the person draws on their mental model to decide whether it is a chair.

Most people would recognise image 1 below as a chair, while there is likely to be disagreement about images 2 and 3. Those whose mental model of a chair focuses on shape are not likely to consider a bean bag (image 2) to be a chair, while the sculpture (image 3) is a chair. Those whose mental model concentrates on function are likely to reach the opposite conclusions.

Differences in mental models and how problems are framed, understood and responded to (Sources: Image 1: Tipos-CreativeWorld at
https://pixabay.com/users/tipos-creativeworld-7963697/. Image 2: Dnklbrqw at https://www.subpng.com. Image 3: Gavin Munro at  https://mymodernmet.com/gavin-munro-full-grown-tree-furniture/).

Differences in mental models and how problems are framed, understood and responded to

Eliciting mental models so that they are brought to consciousness and can be discussed is critical when researchers and stakeholders seek to work together. This will expose differences in how they define the problem, bring to light different knowledge and experience about the problem, and identify different ideas about dealing with the problem.

As an example, consider associations that researchers and stakeholders may have about “low rainfall:”

  • an agricultural scientist and a farmer may have mental models that associate low rainfall with drought and economic hardship
  • a tourism researcher and a tourism business operator may have mental models that associate low rainfall with good weather and profitability
  • a civil engineer and an urban planner may have mental models that associate low rainfall with building dams and the challenges of providing adequate water supplies to city residents.

Eliciting mental models is therefore important in order to:

  • explore similarities and differences in understanding about a problem
  • identify and overcome inaccuracies in mental models about a problem
  • successfully integrate different perspectives to improve overall understanding
  • generate fresh ideas for tackling a problem.

These are part of the process where those working on the project build a shared mental model about the problem, allowing the research to progress successfully.

Differences in mental models and how well those contributing to the research work together

Mental models about the process of working together can be the source of various assumptions and expectations. For example, some people will have a mental model of working together that assumes tasks are distributed equitably and that expects everyone to have a say in decision making. For others, the mental model will be that a small number of team members do most of the work and make most of the decisions, while others play more peripheral roles. When differences in assumptions and expectations become evident, it is important to take the time to elicit and explore the underlying mental models.

Concluding notes

Mental models differ from most of the other sources of diversity discussed in this primer in that there does not seem to be an easy way of classifying them. This makes it harder to develop a systematic way of understanding and dealing with differences in mental models.

Anything to add?

Do you have additional perspectives to share about mental models? Have you found an effective way of categorising them?

Particularly welcome are examples and lessons from your research about how understanding different mental models brought inventiveness to approaching the problem or affected the ability of disciplinary specialists and stakeholders to work together. Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out?

If you are new to this topic, is there anything else on understanding differences in mental models that would be useful?

Sources and references:

In addition to a blog post written with Jen Badham, who alerted me to the chair example, the main sources are Jones et al. (2011) and Moon et al. (2019). They drew on the work of others, which is cited in the references below.

Badham, J. and G. Bammer (2017). Sharing mental models is critical for interdisciplinary collaboration. Integration and Implementation Insights, September. (Online): https://i2insights.org/2017/09/19/mental-models-and-interdisciplinarity/

Jones, N. A., Ross, H., Lynam, T., Perez, P. and Leitch. A. (2011). Mental models: An interdisciplinary synthesis of theory and methods. Ecology and Society,16, 1: 46. (Online – open access): http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss1/art46/

Moon, K., Guerrero, A. M., Adams, V. M., Biggs, D., Blackman, D., Craven, L., Dickinson, H. and Ross H. (2019). Mental models for conservation research and practice. Conservation Letters, 12, 3: (Online – open access) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12642

Biography: Gabriele Bammer PhD is Professor of Integration and Implementation Sciences (i2S) at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at The Australian National University in Canberra. i2S provides theory and methods for tackling complex societal and environmental problems, especially for synthesis of disciplinary and stakeholder knowledge, understanding and managing diverse unknowns, and providing integrated research support for policy and practice change. She is also a member of blog partner PopulationHealthXchange.

The Understanding Diversity Primer comprises the following blog posts:

1. Why diversity? (April 21, 2022)

This blog post:
2. Mental models (April 28, 2022)

Still to come:
3. Perceptions of good research (May 5, 2022)
4. Power (May 12, 2022)
5. Values (May 19, 2022)
6. Interests (May 26, 2022)
7. Culture (June 2, 2022)
8. Personality (June 9, 2022)
9. Team roles (June 16, 2022)
10. Advanced considerations (June 23, 2022)

24 thoughts on “Understanding diversity primer: 2. Mental models”

  1. What an interesting discussion here, thanks all.

    Just a quick comment on the application of mental models for carbonate coral reefs.

    We wanted to generate an evidence-based model of these complex systems, but recognised that people who work in these systems generate different knowledge, which might not always be commensurate and/or can conflict. Nonetheless, if we want to understand the effects of climate change on these systems, it’s important that we can understand the ways in which these systems are experienced and described.

    We developed a method to generate discipline-specific sub-system models of the complex system. It was a really interesting process, revealing similarities and differences between ‘experts’, but also providing opportunities for workshop participants to create a shared mental model in bringing the sub-system models together.

    It was a significant undertaking, which we’ve documented as a method:

    And as empirical models:


  2. Thank you for the engaging blogpost about mental models. From my perspective, mental models provide researchers with a means to understand how people make sense of the world, or an aspect of it. People develop mental models through their interactions with the world around them. An important attribute of a mental model is that it can change through learning and new experiences. A person’s mental model of given phenomenon can also differ according to the situation in which it is used. Mental models are therefore context-dependent. It is important to state, however, that mental models can also inhibit learning as an individual is likely to take in information and perceptual cues that align with their existing mental models, and filter out information and cues that do not align.

    From the perspective of studying mental models, the paper below presents research findings which show that the location in which a mental model is elicited can affect the type of mental model documented in an interview situation: https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol19/iss1/art13/

  3. Thanks for this great blogpost. I really enjoyed your explanation of mental models in such a concise and clear way. Your comments on how individuals will have different associations and the use of the example of “Low rainfall” is an excellent one. I find it really interesting eliciting individual and group mental models and discovering where our understandings or mental models on a subject can widely diverge.

    It bridges into the idea that Katie Moon and I have tackled in some of our work on whether the needed mental model for supporting management is individual models, shared models, or team models. While we set out to elicit a shared model in some cases we discovered it’s not always possible to build a shared understanding or model of highly contentious views. Settling for a team model built upon the shared connections in individual models turned out to be best in our setting.

    Moon K, Adams VM. 2016. Using quantitative influence diagrams to map natural resource managers’ mental models of invasive species management. Land Use Policy 50:341-351.

    • Many thanks for your comment and the additional reference, which moves us on to the important topic of what to do once we understand that mental models can be very diverse. That’s not part of the aim of this primer, but clearly critical for those who want to improve understanding and action on complex societal and environmental problems. Your paper provides some important ideas and methods.

  4. Thanks for this interesting account of mental models, which fits very well indeed the ‘diversity primer’ context, Gabriele. When it comes to integrating different experts’ insights in interdisciplinary work, mental models indeed play multiple roles that are worth addressing.

    In distinction from a world view, a mental model or representation is not just a comprehensive account of what we hold about the world or a specific object, phenomenon. It is -as you write- dynamic in various ways. For example, in the sense that this representation shifts over time due to our growing expertise, but also as it dynamically responds immediately to context and tasks: some features of the representation will become more activated than others which has immediate effect on our perception, cognition, action.

    Then with regard to team work, research suggests that team members often employ distinct task-related, team-related, process-related, and goal-related mental representations – which are not always coherent with each other, making team work sometimes problematic.

    While these expertise-dependent and dynamic changes in our mental representations, and differences regarding teamwork-related representations are already making team work challenging, diversity and inclusion play probably an additional role here as these also affect the representations that individuals have. More importantly diversity and inclusion will also impact the processes of joint metacognition and reflection on the team’s representations – which are crucial for successful team work and integration. Your post made me realize that we must address the power differences and implicit assumptions etc. that our cultural, socio-economic and other differences bring before we can start to adequately engage in such processes. Thanks therefore for highlighting this mental model dimension of diversity! (Team metacognition and reflection was the subject of my blogpost https://i2insights.org/2019/02/05/metacognition-and-interdisciplinarity/ , based upon this article https://eric.ed.gov/?q=keestra&id=EJ1193675 )

    • Many thanks Machiel. I’m glad you referred to your important work and shared your insight about diversity and inclusion. As you say, if we want to be serious about diversity and inclusion, there’s a lot to take into account. It’s an exciting time to be working in this area.

  5. I am not crazy about the term “mental models” for what people know, think, feel, believe, etc., as it seems to trivialize who we are.

    But in any case I recently formulated three “laws” that I have developed over the years, which speak to your mental model issues, especially the last two laws. Here they are. Happy to discuss them.

    Law 1: Expressed thought (speaking and writing) has a tree structure. The issue tree.

    Law 2: The weight of evidence is relative to the observer. Different people can look at the same complex evidence and come to opposite conclusions.

    Law 3: People with different beliefs speak different languages. Definitions are theory laden. The words we use have the meanings they do because we are trying to say what is true. Thus the meaning of what you say depends on what you believe is true. (Kuhn first pointed this out in the case of scientific disputes.)

    Also, that different people can have very different mental models is a two edged sword. On one hand it means that working together they can come up with big new ideas. But they can also come up with irreconcilable disagreements. In a research project, how these conflicts will be resolved needs to be known from the beginning, lest they create havoc.

    • Thanks. Starting with your last point first, I think one of the ways academic work, especially that where diverse researchers and stakeholders address complex problems, has changed is that the challenges posed by diversity are no longer as big a surprise, as they were 20-30 years ago. Back then, I think people were genuinely blindsided by the fact that others think differently. Sadly though, I think a consequence is that researchers are more likely to look for collaborators who are similar to themselves, as this allows quicker progress in a research project to developing answers to research questions and publications. This has limitations, though, in addressing a complex problem more thoroughly. I address this in the last blog post in this series (scheduled for June 23).

      In relation to your other points it would be great to hear more about the issue tree.

      The other two points are really important. Part of the point of this primer, although not stated explicitly, is to highlight that there are good reasons for differences and that those who disagree with us are most probably not evil or stupid. Getting to the bottom of disagreements can be enlightening and even fun, but it takes time and energy, and can have major opportunity costs.

      • Yes there is often great misunderstanding by each side of the other side’s arguments, reasoning and values. Moreover I have found very little interest by each side in understanding the other side. Demonization is often the preferred mode. I am often attacked by both sides when I try to objectively analyze the issues.

        It can be fun but funding is scarce.

      • The issue tree is briefly explained here:
        Happy to discuss it.

        Next year is the 50th anniversary of my discovery of the issue tree. My academic colleagues showed no interest so I left and never looked back. In fact I was criticized for having my students do issue tree diagrams instead of essays.

        In terms of mental models when I look at a complex issue I see structures and dynamics that no one else knows exist. The allocation of attention to a given sub-issue for example and how that changes over time. Lots of things to measure too.

  6. Great post! Two concepts I find useful in relation to mental models: espoused theories and theories in use. Espoused theories is what we expose as our beliefs and mental model. Theories in use are what actually drives our behaviour.

    The seminal work by Argyis on organisational learning shows that the gap between both is a good predictor of an organisation’s success. In a collaboration context, this could take the form of what team members would say about the intent of the collaboration (e.g. I am excited about the project because it is a great collaboration effort). This is an example of “espoused theory”. During the project, the collaborative behaviour may tell a different reality.

    I find the distinction between both concepts to be useful for creating critical awareness of “what we think” and what actually drives our behaviour as we perceive cues from our environment about what we should do. The gap often opens interesting conversations about the context or structure where we operate including for example: the incentive system in place (where carrots and sticks are). Back to the collaboration context, if my institution or discipline does not value collaboration, the team “theories in use” will be predominantly around working in silos because this what gets them ahead in their own tribe.

    • Thanks Sondoss. That’s a useful additional ‘take.’

      In this series of blog posts on understanding diversity, I treat mental models, values, interests etc as separate, but there are of course connections between them. It seems to me that this whole area is crying out for some solid empirical work.

  7. I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you!

    Are mental models and worldviews similar concepts? To me, it feels (ie I haven’t researched this) like worldviews are the broader ‘container’ within which mental models might sit? What is your view on the relationship between the two concepts?

      • Mental model seems to encompass everything we know, think, feel, believe, etc., or basically who we are mentally. If so then worldview is probably a subset, possible a relatively small subset. Neither of these terms is sufficiently well defined for a precise answer as to how they relate.

        • Thanks. My understanding is also that world views has a wide variety of definitions (one of which is that world views are mental models). This array of different understandings is frustrating, but also a reflection of the state of the field and the relatively early stages of being a serious area for academic enquiry. There’s huge scope for good work to move our understanding forward.

          • Yes and this is characteristic of big new ideas. My favorite example is the science of dynamics in physics, founded by Galileo. It grew out of Medieval discussions of (and arguments about) “quantity of motion”. Turned out there was speed, velocity, acceleration, inertia, momentum, kinetic energy, and more.

            As I like to put it, confusion is the price of progress.

      • I agree with you Mariana. The only time I came across the distinction is through Peter Checkland CATOWE work. Checkland sees world views as the core beliefs and values we have based on who we are, our culture and background. They are the broader context to what we think.

        The other relevant concept here is “perspective”. Perspective depends on our position in the system. While our world view is core and difficult to change, we change our perspective as we change position. I find the distinction to be useful in negotiation settings as well as for creating empathy especially in difficult conversations, where sometimes our organizational hat may be different from our personal world view.
        Exciting discussion!

        • But our mental model will include both core and noncore beliefs and values, even trivial stuff. This would seem to make one’s worldview a relatively small subset of one’s mental model.


Leave a Reply

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