Friday, 4 May 2018

Exploring what Mental Models Are

I was asked recently to explain what mental models are. While I have written about mental models before (here), I thought I would give a bit more insight into what they are. 

To cite myself, they “are ‘theories people hold about specific systems in the world and their expected behavior’ (Daft, 2008, p. 133). The implication is that a mental model is something that we have about the world, based on assumption, experience, belief and perception; which may be accurate or inaccurate. They give us the ability, using imagination and our current level of understanding, to project what we know into the unknown, to explore “what if” scenarios, to mentally simulate and to rehearse times which have not yet arrived. Our mental models tend to go unchanged until challenged by circumstances; and once challenged, there is an opportunity to reassess, or to believe that no change is required.” (Young, 2018, p. 33). 

Think of them as scripts we use to live and explore – within our heads – our yet-to-arrive futures. Peter Senge says they are "are deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action" (1990, p. 8). They are a map of what we understand about how things work in our worldview: our understanding of our terrain. We have LOTS of mental models about all aspects of our lives. Some are inherited (until we think about them), some are unconsicous, some are deliberately learned, some are superb and some hold us back.

Our ability to live in our futures is a purely human thing. Other animals can mimic it, but they can't conceptualise a time which has not been experienced. We are, apparently, the only animal that has imagination and the ability to think about future situations which have not yet arrived (Gilbert, 2005). Fascinating!

The trouble is, our scripts – mental models – can get fixed in place. We will hold onto our old scripts which are still working for us, and then the world moves on, leaving us and our scripts behind. We are unable to see a more in-tune-with-the-times point of view because we are stuck in the past… fossilised. We won’t be able change unless (a) we consciously and deliberately set out to see why our old scripts are no longer getting us what we used to get, or (b) are forced into change because the world around us will no longer accept us or allow us to operate as we are (usually through legislation – think the anti-smacking bill. New Zealand wasn’t ready for it – old mental model for the whole country – but now, ten years on, we have a new mental model - and a deeper understanding - about how family violence is perpetrated. We now understand our national need for change, through the rear vision mirror).

If anyone is interested in reading more on these, below is a tiny starter reading list.
  • Adamides, E. D.; Stamboulis, Y. & Kanellopoulos, V. (2003). Economic integration and strategic change: the role of managers’ mental models. Strategic Change, 12(2), 69-82.
  • Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2005). Chapter 8: The History of Mental Models in K. Manktelow, M. C. Chung (Eds) Psychology of Reasoning: Theoretical and Historical Perspectives (pp. 179-212). USA: Psychology Press.


  • Daft, R. L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (4th ed.). USA: Cengage. 
  • Gilbert, D. (2005). Stumbling on Happiness. New York, USA: Vintage Books. 
  • Senge, P. (1990). The Fifth Discipline. New York, USA: Doubleday.
  • Young, S. (2018). Mental Models in the Sport Governance Boardroom. Griffith University: PhD Research Proposal.

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