Mental Models

Mental Models

Mental Models

Mental Models


Approach is interdisciplinary, with chapters from cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence, & cognitive anthropology. Focuses on specifying & studying people's internal models of physical phenomena.


A typical piece of mental models research is characterized by careful examination of the way people understand some domain of knowledge. For example, Patrick Hayes (1979) has analyzed the concepts involved in understanding the behavior of liquids. This understanding enables people to predict when a liquid will flow, stand still, or spread into a thin sheet on a surface. Using Hayes' analysis, we can model the way in which people imagine liquids moving through time from one of these states to another: for example, a glass of water spilling on a table, flowing over the edge, hitting the floor, and then dripping through a crack. Hayes' attempt to represent this knowledge is extremely explicit. He has carefully described the inferences a person can draw from each of these different liquid states.

What is the point of research on mental models? Why attempt to lay out human understanding of a domain so explicitly? Clearly, this research has applied utility. For example, Hayes' work on liquids would be relevant to understanding why operators of nuclear plants do not always correctly interpret their instruments. Similarly, in order to train seamen about how a steam ship works, the better our models of exactly what kind of knowledge is involved in liquid flow and phase transitions, the better we would be able to simulate, teach, and test for this knowledge.

But, as important as these applied consequences are, they are not the fundamental goal of mental models research. Mental models research is fundamentally concerned with understanding human knowledge about the world.

Dimensions of Mental Models Research

There are three key dimensions on which to characterize mental models research: the nature of the domain studied, the nature of the theoretical approach, and the nature of the methodology.

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