Mental Models and Change LO29363

From: Terje A. Tonsberg (
Date: 10/19/02

Replying to LO29319 --

Fred and group,

Fred Nickols said:

> Just out of curiosity, does anyone know of any evidence that so-called
> "mental models" actually exist or are we dealing here with an assumption,
> a hypothesis, a theory that mental models exist. How would we know that
> they exist?

Leave it to you to ask the right questions...;-)

>From my understanding so-called mental models are heuristics that people
go by when they take decisions based on environmental input. It is a
metaphor. Some empirical findings in their regard seem useful though, in
that research has found that there are certain logical errors that people
tend to make in general. For example, if people read about flying pigs in
the newspaper, the perceived likelihood of such an event increases among
the readers.

Tversky and Kahneman (1974), studying heuristics, said:


Probability of an object belonging to a category: the representativeness
heuristic states that the likelihood that object A belongs to category B
is determined by the extent to which it is representative or similar to
other objects in that category.

Probability of events: the availability heuristic states, the probability
associated with an event is related to the ease with which an instance of
the event can be brought to mind (which can be affected by e.g.. media

Estimating the magnitude of something: According to the anchoring
heuristic, any information relating to the estimated quantity, no matter
how unreliable, biases or anchors subsequent estimates of that quantity.

My personal view is that the use of metaphors such as mental models clouds
the issue of understanding others. It would be enough to simply stick to
observable facts regarding a human beings actions. This is to avoid
pigeonholing and filling books with theories that can never be proven
through direct observation.

Most importantly, mental models do not actually explain anything, they are
constructs (guesses) in the minds of researchers, attributing causes to
mystical "software" in the mind. Why not just say "when x happens in
situation y A tends to do z, particularly if it is (expected to be)
followed by t" or the like? I.e. stick to studying antecedents, actions
and consequences on a case by case basis.

In addition, as human beings we constantly evolve as we are exposed to
internal and external changes. In light of this, the concept of mental
models is too static and simplistic and general. Even if we could find
that people fit nicely into researcher's constructs of mental models, we
are not dealing with averages in practical reality, we are dealing with
unique individuals. Also, even if you classify individual A as having
mental model x, who said he'll have the same one tomorrow?

So in conclusion, yes, I think mental models exist, but only in the minds
of researchers.



"Terje A. Tonsberg" <>

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