Mental Model (1999)

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Authors: Philip Johnson-Laird

Philip Johnson-Laird, Stuart Professor of Psychology at Princeton University is the person most often credited with the development of the conception “mental models.” In his article “Mental Models” in The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences, he attributes the origin of the concept to Kenneth Craik:

As psychological representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations, mental models were first postulated by the Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik (1943), who wrote that the mind constructs “small-scale models” of reality to anticipate events, to reason, and to underlie explanation. (525)

On the basis of numerous experimental studies, he describes mental models in the following way:

The models are constructed in working memory as a result of perception, the comprehension of discourse, or imagination. A crucial feature is that their structure corresponds to the structure of what they represent. Mental Models are accordingly akin to architects' models of buildings and to chemists' models of complex molecules. (525)

The significance of mental models for communication research is that they are another way of describing several key terms: frame, schema, mental space, script, category. It is important that Johnson-Laird research, which is widely accepted among cognitive scientist, establishes that mental models are constructed in working memory. This has many implications for an understanding of the communication of meanings. It suggests that communicators construct meanings which are re-constructed in the working memory of listeners or readers or viewers.

Johnson-Laird describes his current research project as a study of failed reasoning:

My colleagues and I investigate thinking and reasoning, which we study using computational modeling and psychological experiments. In our theory, reasoning depends on the construction of mental models of possibilities. Inferences that call for only a single model of a possibility are easier than those that call for models of multiple possibilities. Models tend to represent only what is true, and, as a consequence, even the best reasoners succumb to systematic fallacies when falsity is at stake. Our recent studies have applied this theory to reverse engineering, to the detection and explanation of inconsistencies, to the acquisition of concepts, and to causal reasoning. Other recent research derives from a theory of emotions developed in collaboration with Keith Oatley. With psychiatric colleagues, Francesco Mancini and Amelia Gangemi, I have proposed a theory of psychological illnesses, such as phobias and depression: their cause is hyper emotional reactions rather than faulty thinking.

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Notes on the Context of Use

Johnson-Laird's conception of mental models is highly regarded. See his 1983 Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge UP

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This conception was submitted by jjs on Apr 18, 2010.


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MLA: Sosnoski, J. "Mental Model." SCLCR Concept Database. Society for Conceptual Logistics in Communication Research, 04 18 2010. Web. 20 Mar 2018. < >.

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Chicago: Sosnoski, Jim. Society for Conceptual Logistics in Communication Research, "Mental Model." Last modified April 18, 2010. Accessed March 20, 2018.