What is a Mental Model?

Mary McMahon

A mental model is a construct in the mind that shapes thought processes, behaviors, and responses to situations. People work with a number of mental models to create a framework for engaging with the world and understanding the events that unfold around them. These constructs can include memories of real world situations, as well as hypothetical situations and theoretical responses to them. Numerous things can influence mental model formation including someone's cultural and religious background.

Developmental or intellectual disabilities can inhibit development of mental models.
Developmental or intellectual disabilities can inhibit development of mental models.

Kenneth Craik, a Scottish researcher, proposed the mental model theory in the 1940s. He blended philosophy and psychology in his work to understand how people interact with their environments. Many people built on this work to explore the formation of mental models and differing types of models in various populations. Some practitioners of psychology study and use this theory about the human mind in their work on a regular basis.

As people interact with the world around them, they start to develop mental models. One thing that can inhibit development of mental models is intellectual disability, which may make it harder for someone to understand and process complex concepts. Mental illness can also interfere, as it may distort reality for someone and make it harder to find predictable and understandable models of human behavior and activity. People use their mental models to understand why and how people do things and also to develop techniques for identifying and completing tasks.

Prior experiences can be helpful by providing a real world frame of reference and people may fill in the gaps with imaginary scenarios to create mental models. These models help people identify and follow patterns in human behavior so they can apply them to situations in their own lives. Using a mental model, a person can make a decision about a course of action, and will rely on feedback from the results of the decision to inform and improve the model.

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People apply their mental models to everything from understanding political events to negotiating interpersonal disagreements. Researchers who agree with this theory to explain cognition generally believe these models are flexible and may shift with time in response to environmental factors.

Culture and environment can have a significant impact on mental model formation. People with limited real world experiences may have trouble creating meaningful and useful models. Being raised in a sheltered or restrictive environment can make it hard for people to interact with individuals from other backgrounds who may have differing lived experiences and corresponding mental models.

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