Overview of Mental Modeling Research Methodology

The concept of mental models has been the focus of extensive research in the field of psychology dating back to the 1930s. A person’s mental model can be thought of as a complex web of deeply held beliefs below the surface of conscious thinking that affect how an individual defines a problem, reacts to information, forms judgments, and makes decisions. One’s beliefs about a topic may be complete and correct, or they may have consequential gaps and misperceptions that negatively influence decision making and action—behavior, Mental models are not observable; they can only be determined with empirical research. They are typically represented using influence diagrams which depict the factors a person perceives as relevant to the issue at hand, with directional arrows showing how the value (or level) of one factor influences the value of another (Johnson-Laird 1983).

Decades of research and experience have shown that to effectively engage people through communications and enable changes in their beliefs and behaviors, one must first understand their mental models. Once these models are understood, one can then design strategies and communications that: reinforce what they know that is correct, address key knowledge gaps and misperceptions that are consequential, and use communications sources and methods that are credible and relevant to the focal stakeholders. Research into individuals’ mental models reveals critical issues and identifies gaps and alignments among the values, perceptions, decisions, and information needs of the various stakeholder groups.

An expert model is an important element in Mental Modeling. It is a formal, comprehensive graphic representation that summarizes and integrates the current knowledge and understanding of experts about the key factors of the topic being studied. It can be thought of as an “expert’s mental model,” as it typically comprises a composite of the knowledge and beliefs—mental models—of several experts. Expertise is often distributed throughout the stakeholder community and may be formal or informal. For complex situations or problems, an expert model captures the breadth of expertise that is often distributed across a number of experts, each with specific areas of expertise. As a depiction of experts’ understanding of a topic, or their contribution to the topic, an expert model is expected to be relatively accurate and objective if the experts participating in the model development have the requisite expertise to address the major factors in the model being depicted. That said, as described in more detail later, the Mental Modeling approach is specifically designed to reveal the factors that stakeholders believe to be relevant even if those factors have not been anticipated by the research designers or participating experts. Often stakeholder interviews reveal factors that the experts have not considered. Such discovery is a benefit of the Mental Modeling approach that cannot be replicated with opinion surveys or other tools designed to assess how many people think the same thing about a set of prescribed factors.

Expert models are essential management tools used to ensure that a project team and key stakeholders are aligned on the understanding of the topic at hand and the project scope. They also serve as the analytical framework for the design, implementation, and structured analyses of mental models research. The focus of such research is to provide deep insight into nonexpert stakeholders’ (laypeople’s) mental models of the topic at hand.

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