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
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.
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)