The importance of mental models

by Stephanie Chasteen on June 13, 2011

I wrote last week about how the metaphors we use in communication have a powerful effect on how the issue is framed and how people understand and/or are convinced by what we say.

Part of the thing that is so powerful about metaphors is that they prime us to think about something in a certain way; they bring certain ideas and patterns of thought to the fore of our brain.  In an interesting twist on this idea, a recent study (J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 100, 2011) brought students outdoors and asked them whether they believed that climate change was unproven or proven.  Their answers correlated with the ambient temperature, such that on a colder day, students were more likely to say that climate change was unproven.  The study demonstrated that students weren’t saying that climate change wasn’t happening because the cold day disproved it.  They also weren’t more likely to say that global warming was real when the researchers just gave them words having to do with heat and warmth.  Rather, says the summary in Science, “participants who experienced warmth viscerally were more apt to form clear mental images of hot environments and this simulational fluency was linked in turn to a greater belief in climate change.”

In other words, the more accessible an idea is (especially viscerally), the more likely we are to believe it.

I’m currently reading a wonderful pamphlet called The Psychology of Climate Change Communication (you can download it for free, or they’ll send you a paper copy), which I’ll write about more next time.  I believe that every education reformer should get a copy of this pamphlet.  The importance of mental models is the first thing that they talk about:

Mental models, which are based on often-incomplete facts, past experiences, and even intuitive perceptions, help shape actions and behavior, influence what people pay attention to in complicated situations, and define how people approach and solve problems.

Physical models can make our mental models manifest

These mental models, or the ways in which we try to assess risk, can lead people to only seek out certain types of information — usually confirming their existing beliefs, they write.    In fact, they give a helpful list of words that can appeal to people who either see things in terms of prevention of risk (e.g., “duty,” “defend,” or “cautious”), or people who see things in terms of promotion and advancement (e.g., “ideal”, “aspire”, or “support”).  This relates directly to the study of smokers I wrote about last week , where those intending to quit were more receptive to messages about the benefits of quitting, whereas those not intending to quit were more persuaded by messages about the dangers of continuing to smoke.  Where we’re at, conceptually, affects how we hear things.

I’ll write more next time about the main messages in this climate change communication pamphlet.  I’m struck by how much the messages resonate with my messages on effective communication of education research to practicing teachers (see my post about my FFPERPS talk, Get the Word Out).  This pamphlet could be re-written for our community.

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