Mental models concepts for system dynamics research



Although “mental models” are of central importance to system dynamics research and practice, the field has yet to develop an unambiguous and agreed upon definition of them. To begin to address this problem, existing definitions and descriptions of mental models in system dynamics and several literatures related to cognitive science were reviewed and compared. Available definitions were found to be overly brief, general, and vague, and different authors were found to markedly disagree on the basic characteristics of mental models. Based on this review, we concluded that in order to reduce the amount of confusion in the literature, the mental models concept should be “unbundled” and the term “mental models” should be used more narrowly. To initiate a dialogue through which the system dynamics community might achieve a shared understanding of mental models, we propose a new definition of “mental models of dynamic systems” accompanied by an extended annotation that explains the definitional choices made and suggests terms for other cognitive structures left undefined by narrowing the mental model concept. Suggestions for future research that could improve the field's ability to further define mental models are discussed. © 1998 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.