Mental Models: How do they help navigate Indeterminate Situations?

Learning and reasoning are among the two most important contributors to the evolution of human society. We learn and reason often consciously, but many a times unconsciously and sub-consciously.  Our choices and action are often guided by what we know and what we want to know.

Experiential Continuum that helps us build our Mental Models

John Dewey argues that an experience arises from the interaction of the principles of continuity (each experience influences future experience) and interaction (situation influences our experience).

He states that “every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after” – thus forming an experiential continuum. (Pp. 35) [1].

In other words, experiential continuum and the interactions with different situations help build capability for dealing with a range of situations. The process of reflection involves looking back over what has been done so as to extract ‘net meaning’, which is the capital stock for dealing with further experiences. (Ibid. Pp. 87)

Dewey’s idea of ‘net meaning’ or the ‘capital stock’ or ‘knowledge’ is the mental model we all build for dealing with a given situation or situations, the model which helps us develop an intuitive understanding of the situation and broadly know the cause-effect relationships and the impact of our choices and actions on ourselves and on our environment.

Our Mental Models evolve as we deal with Indeterminate Situations

Building on Dewey’s idea of ‘problematic’ situation, Donald Schön argues that a professional, more often than not, faces an indeterminate swampy zone of practice where the problem cannot be solved by applying theory and technique derived from scientific knowledge.[2] (Pp. 3)

Schön argues that there is a tacit knowledge (professional artistry) involved even in situations where we can depend on scientific knowledge (how to build a road), which gets revealed in our intelligent action – publicly observable physical performance. He refers to such know-how as knowing-in-action – spontaneous skillful execution. (Ibid. Pp. 21 to 25)

On the other hand, an indeterminate situation[3] contains an element of surprise (our expectations are not met or our assumptions are not valid) and the surprise forces us to consciously reflect about what are the possible causes behind our expectations not being met. Schön refers to this act of thinking as reflection-in-action. Reflection-in-action helps question the structure of assumptions behind knowing-in-action. In other words, we think critically about the thinking that led to a surprise opportunity or a challenge emerge, which, in turn, results in the restructuring of strategies or ways of framing or the understanding of the phenomenon itself. (Ibid. Pp. 26)

In Schön’s words, reflection gives rise to on-the-spot experiment, with the practitioner not being dependent on categories of established theory and technique but constructing a new theory of the unique case. At the same, he or she brings “repertoire of examples, images, understandings and actions” from the past experience to bear on a unique situation. (Pp 66)

In other words, the practitioner draws upon his or her mental model or frame of reference to understand and resolve the indeterminate situation and realise the stated purpose.

What constitutes a Mental Model?

Philip Johnson-Laird mentions that we depend on mental models to anticipate the world and make decisions.[4] He credits Kenneth Craik to be on the first model theorists, quoting Craik’s book – The Nature of Explanation.

Johnson-Laird highlights the following paragraph to make his point:

“If the organism carries a “small-scale model” of external reality and of its own possible actions within its head, it is able to try out various alternatives, conclude which is the best of them, react to future situations before they arise, utilise the knowledge of past events in dealing with the present and the future, and in every way to react in a much fuller, safer, and more competent manner to the emergencies which face it.”

Natalie Jones et al. see mental models as “cognitive representations of external reality.” [5] They suggest that mental models represent incomplete reality, as people have limited ability to represent the world accurately. They also mention that the mental models are context-dependent and may therefore change with situation.

Donald Norman while discussing the idea of mental models makes the following observations:

“Mental Models are naturally evolving models. That is, through interaction with a target system, people formulate mental models of that system. These modes need not be technically accurate (and usually are not), but they must be functional. A person, through interaction with the system, will continue to modify the mental model in order to get a workable result. Mental models will be constrained by the user’s technical background, previous experiences with similar system, and the structure of the human information processing system.”

I argue that a mental model of the situation can never be complete, as we always work with incomplete information and the model is in any case a conceptual representation of a situation. Norman’s observation above requires us to consider the need for reviewing our own mental model over time, learn about other people’s mental models in similar situations and learn how the existing theoretical and empirical research in a given area can inform our mental model, allowing it to become more effective in helping us make choices and act to realise our purpose.

Given the evolving nature of a mental model, it is essential that we work together and help each other elicit their mental model and build a shared mental model, which will make it easier to work together, pool resources and realise a common purpose, all that with lower probability of conflicts and higher probability of success in organisational as well as personal context.

If we can organise our experience and elicit the resulting mental model to share it with others, we can become far more effective as individuals and collectives (e.g., families, organisation, teams, etc.).



[1][1][1] Experience and Education by John Dewey, First Touchstone Edition, 1997.

[2] Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward A New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions by Donald A. Schön, 1987,

[3] Schön defines an indeterminate situation to be characterised by complexity, uncertainty, stability, uniqueness and value conflict. (Ibid. Pp. 6)

[4] Philip Johnson-Laird, The History of Mental Models,

[5] Natalie A Jones, Helen Ross, Timothy Lynam, Pascal Perez, and Anne Leitch, Mental Models: An Interdisciplinary Synthesis of Theory and Methods, Ecology and Society 16(1): 46.

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