Why doesn’t anyone get it? Digging deeper with mental models

Why doesn’t anyone get it? The age-old question scientists have been forgetting to ask for centuries. A mental models approach attempts to get to the bottom of this through describing and assessing beliefs of particular groups about an issue. This is particularly interesting in the context of climate change a field of research that seems to continually struggle to sell itself to the masses despite scientific evidence which begs the question, what are we doing wrong? To help answer this question, a mental model is a representation of how people understand how something works- an aspect that we have read is often taken for granted in streamlined attempts at stakeholder engagement. The idea behind a mental models approach being that if you take a moment to assess the understanding that individuals or groups have in the first place you will be better equipped to intercept false understandings of a problem at their source, such as climate change (CRED, 2009).



The classic example of an inaccurate mental model in the field of climate change is the false perception many hold that the hole in the ozone is connected to climate change, said hole allowing more solar radiation to enter or escape thus warming or cooling the planet. This leads to the perception that banning aerosol cans solves climate change for example. Once such a model is identified however, advocates for global action on climate change can address it directly to correct this flawed logic (CRED, 2009). Other examples I stumbled upon include using a mental models approach to assess the communication of occupational health risks in machine shops which helped to understand disconnects between how workers receive information vs. how they would like to receive information and frustration from experts at the inability to convey risk successfully (not unlike the frustration of scientists at convincing naysayers that climate change needs to be addressed)(Nicol and Hurrell, 2008) . Another resource management study used a consensus analysis method in partnership with a mental models approach to better understand the level of consensus in 2 stakeholder groups around key players, causes, consequences, and priorities related to water use and management (Stone-Jovicich, 2011).  Approaching a problem without making the assumption that the other groups involved have the same understanding of the problem is so often skimmed over and I think academics and scientists are highly prone to frustrations upon realizing that their understanding of the world is far different from the average Joe’s (my grad student self included!).

Approaching situations such as stakeholder engagement with the assumption that you can’t assume anything is a habit that can only strengthen the success of participatory processes, though it is a challenging shift to make in practice. I myself can think of plenty of examples from my everyday life when assessing the mental model of my audience before acting or speaking would have come in handy, especially in cross-cultural contexts. Continuing to assume that everyone around me is a critically thinking equity-minded public health conscious individual doesn’t get me much besides frustration so why not shift my approach? Old habits die hard but I’d like to think that recognizing them is half (a third? part of?) the battle.


Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED). (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication. Available at: http://guide.cred.columbia.edu/index.html

Nicol, A.M. and Hurrell A.C.  (2008). Exploring Knowledge Translation in Occupational Health using the Mental Models approach: A case study of machine shops. Available at: https://circle.ubc.ca/bitstream/handle/2429/30876/SRA-ESREL_paper_FINAL_2008-06-03.pdf?sequence=1

Stone-Jovicich, S.S. et al. (2011). Using Consensus Analysis to Assess Mental Models about Water Use and Management in the Crocodile River Catchment, South Africa. Ecology and Society, 16 (1): 45. Available at: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol16/iss1/art45/


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  1. Policy who? | Communication4Health - November 6, 2013

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