Wednesday, 1 August 2018

What do mental models consist of?

Mental models are “theories people hold about specific systems in the world and their expected behavior” (Daft, 2008, p. 133). Argyris and Schön (1978) call these theories-in-use, but they are also known as scripts, maps or schema. We use mental models to work out mentally how things work before we try them physically. They are ideas or images that we have about the world, based on assumption, experience, belief and perception; which may be accurate or inaccurate, conscious or unconscious ... so forming either end of a purposeful full dress rehearsal or a ‘gut reaction’.

Our models allow us to shortcut our mental processes, 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. Once scripts are created, we can reuse them as shortcuts help us to understand and adapt to new and different situations (Adamides, Stamboulis, and Kanellopoulos, 2003; Gentner & Stevens, 1983).

Our models tend to be ‘rough’ schema: incomplete, but workable hypotheses of cause and effect. The simplistic, shortcut nature of mental models means we can change strategies or run ‘what if’ scenarios very quickly. However, as we tend to make our scripts as simple as we can, it makes them ‘buggy’, so the potential speed of change brings an inflated potential for error (Badke-Schaub, Neumann, Lauche, & Mohammed, 2007).

They are also somewhat porous, overlapping and conflating with other mental models we hold (Gentner & Stevens, 1983). Providing we keep learning, our mental models have a nature of evolutionary refining, testing and retesting. However, if we stop re-evaluating, our ‘reality’ can become fixed to a time that has now passed. This can leave us blind to outdated assumptions, stereotypes or prejudices until our mental models are forcibly challenged by circumstance. Further, in stable or successful environments, we may not seek new schemas and so stagnate (Adamides, Stamboulis, and Kanellopoulos, 2003).

Once our models are challenged, we have the opportunity to reassess (or to believe that no change is required - oo, now there's a dangerous situation!). As we are often not aware of the scripts we use, making a reliable analysis of why our actions did not achieve desired outcomes becomes a bit of a problem. To further complicate this, where we have insight, the models we say – or think – we use (‘espoused’ theories) are not necessarily the models we actually use (‘theories-in-use’) (Argyris, 1982). We also design our own responses to situations (ie, “deliberate human behaviour”, Argyris & Schön, 1978, p. 11) but though a lack of self-awareness or a lack of clarity may be ignorant of the gap between our espoused and used models. To learn from our own behaviour takes dedication, purposeful, honest reflection and a growth mindset (Argyris, 1982; Dweck, 2013).

It is easy to see why we can so often get left behind, get a shock when someone challenges our thinking, or be oblivious to why we have brassed someone off when you think about the totally unhinged rubbish that could be playing in our heads...


  • 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.
  • Argyris, C. (1982). Reasoning, learning, and action: Individual and organizational. USA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Argyris, C. & Schön, D. A. (1978). Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, MA, USA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
  • Badke-Schaub, P., Neumann, A., Lauche, K., & Mohammed, S. (2007). Mental models in design teams: a valid approach to performance in design collaboration?. CoDesign, 3(1), 5-20.
  • Daft, R. L. (2008). The Leadership Experience (4th ed.). Mason, OH, USA: Thomson South-Western.
  • Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, USA: Random House.
  • Gentner, D., & Stevens, A. L. (1983). Mental Models. USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

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