Mental models: a gentle introduction

The mental model theory of thinking and reasoning is the focus of this blog. Mental models are representations in the mind of real or imaginary situations. Scientists sometimes use the term “mental model” as a synonym for “mental representation”, but it has a narrower referent in the case of the theory of thinking and reasoning.

The idea that people rely on mental models can be traced back to Kenneth Craik’s suggestion in 1943 that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality that it uses to anticipate events. Mental models can be constructed from perception, imagination, or the comprehension of discourse. They underlie visual images, but they can also be abstract, representing situations that cannot be visualised. Each mental model represents a possibility. Mental models are akin to architects’ models or to physicists’ diagrams in that their structure is analogous to the structure of the situation that they represent, unlike, say, the structure of logical forms used in formal rule theories. In this respect they are a little like pictures in the “picture” theory of language described by Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1922.

Cognitive scientists have explored mental models and the mind generally. They have carried out an extensive programme of study on how models engender thoughts and inferences. They have studied how children develop such models, how a model of one domain may serve as an analogy for another domain, how mental models engender emotions, and how to design computer systems for which it is easy to acquire a model.

Many reasoning researchers world-wide have studied the model theory of deductive reasoning. They have published many papers on mental models in reasoning. Many of these articles present experimental evidence that corroborates the predictions of the model theory of deduction, and others suggest revisions and modifications to some of the theory’s tenets to accommodate new data. Critics of the model theory include proponents of alternative theories of deduction based on inference rules. The controversy about whether people reason by relying on models or on inference rules has been long but fruitful: it has led to better experiments, to explicit theories implemented in computer programs, and to developments of the mental model theory of thinking and reasoning in novel domains.

Phil Johnson-Laird and Ruth Byrne

May 2000 (updated July 2012)

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4 Responses to Mental models: a gentle introduction

  1. Joshua says:

    This is a great primer for anyone who wants to learn about mental models. “Each mental model represents a possibility.” Thanks for sharing this thought and explaining what mental models are.

  2. Marcus Feder says:

    I have no doubt that these visual images exist since I regularly experience then when thinking through alternate possibilities of events that could be. During these flashes of thought my actual visual (I.e. Seeing with my open eyes) becomes secondary to the images which are being processed within my mind in seconds. Out of curiosity I started searching for others experiences and any “empirical” research that has been conducted in this area when I ran across this information.

  3. I have experienced a new job where I am witnessing this theory first hand. I find people and how they will view an experience in such vastly different ways. Love psychology and how we use our perceptions of reality to interact peacefully.

  4. David Harold Chester says:

    It is a curious fact of nature that whenever we begin a train of thought, we are bound to model the subject in our mind’s eye. Usually for simple matters, this technique is successful and with the need for sharing our ideas (due to our social drives), the ensuing vocal communications are satisfactory.

    But with original conceptions and more complex subjects, the model that each person builds tends to become different, indistinct and to mutate over time, so that the associated dialogue eventually breaks down. These limitations can be overcome however, when the parties agree to supplement their words with a conventional type of diagram or to adopt other kinds of graphic illustration.

    Thus, by the introduction of visual perception, the two conceptual models become identical. In addition, the use of this faculty frees the minds of the participants, enabling them to concentrate on other aspects of the subject that are of mutual concern. It is particularly between technical people, that this essential approach eases the way for the exchange of more elaborate ideas and for their development.

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