What are mental models?

Mental models are made up of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that correspond to each individual person. But they are also influenced by context.

Last update: September 07, 2021

Can you imagine all the time it would take for the mind to always start from scratch when making a decision or finding a solution? To solve this, it works through mental models, which are like tools used to assess a situation and make a decision about it.

According to Greca and Moreira (2001), a mental model is an internal construction formed by a set of laws, guidelines and logical sequences that are used to interpret reality. So we all use them and they serve a practical purpose.

How do you build a mental model?

Mental models are built through multiple components:

  • Thoughts.
  • Previous experiences.
  • Assumptions
  • Values.
  • Beliefs

A priori, this already tells us that each person or group has their own mental models. This can be verified through a simple example: if we ask different people to draw a tree or a house, the results will surely be different. It is because their perception of these objects is different, so the mental models will be too.

While perhaps one of these people imagines the lemon tree in the courtyard of their grandmother's house and associates it with childhood, perhaps for the other it is the pine trees of a mountain landscape, remembering a trip they once made. In addition to personal experiences, there is influence from society, culture and the context to which we belong.

Each person has their own mental models, which were developed throughout life and continue to be built.

How do we use mental models?

Mental models are patterns of thought and feelings that draw on previous experiences and serve as guidance. They help us interpret a situation, to make sense of reality, to make decisions.

The fact that they are patterns means that they are repeating, so it is important to adapt that mental model of one size according to the situation or question that is presented to us. Always appeal to the same common place Mental modeling can lead to a point of blindness.

On the other hand, we must always think of the mental models in interaction. That is, they are not hermetic, but just as they serve to influence, they are also influenced by the context. Constantly, the mind connects the new information with what it already has.

How to make changes from mental models?

Mental models have the enormous advantage of allowing economy of thought. That is, they lead us to appeal to our own constructions and previous knowledge, facilitating action.

However, this can also have a disadvantage: we are always relying on the same thing. That is why it is good to consider that it is necessary to renew our mental models, enrich them and continue building them.

For this, some of the recommendations are the following:

  • In the first place, be aware of the advantages that mental models bring us, but also of their limitations. This means that we must always know that we may be lacking elements to analyze a scenario.
  • Faced with the previous point, it is good to be encouraged to ask uncomfortable questions, putting in check the habitual paths of thoughts, through alternative thinking.
  • It is convenient to be clear about the way we think and accept that it is one of the many possibilities. No one owns the absolute truth.
  • A very useful tool for finding different points of view to a situation is brainstorming.
  • It is always good to ask yourself what I lose and what I gain.


Examples of mental models

In all areas of life we ​​apply mental models, as well as in different areas, from personal to work and organizational. Therefore, as tools for practical use, different proposals were created.

One of them has to do with the 80/20 model. It is about that, when looking for a solution, the path and the recommendations are taken into account by 80% always. While it is expected that the remaining 20% ​​will allow creativity, alternative thinking and other unusual outlets to be visualized. This is a model that is widely used in the workplace.

Another example is the decision tree or concept maps. Faced with a given situation, drawing the ramifications about the possible scenarios or consequences is useful. This will allow us to contemplate aspects that perhaps we had not imagined.

Mental models can be applied to the workplace to promote productivity.


The greater the diversity, the better

As we commented at the beginning, mental models work as shortcuts when giving an answer. For this reason, it is important that we always try to nourish ourselves from different sources of information, to have experiences, to approach other opinions.

In this way, our mental models are going to build on multiple voices. Then it will be easier to incorporate different readings or points of view about a situation. It should not be forgotten that mental models are simplified and manageable versions, to which specific information and nuances must be added.

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that mental models are constructions. This means that they can change. For well-being, it is important to bet on mental models that are more functional for life.