What Is a Mental Model?
A mental model represents a person’s thought process for how something works (i.e., a person’s understanding of the surrounding world). 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.3 Perhaps most important to climate change communicators, mental models serve as the framework into which people fit new information.4
People usually have some relevant knowledge and beliefs that help them interpret new information in order to reach conclusions. When hearing about risk, people often refer to known related phenomena and associations from their past to decide if they find the risk threatening or manageable. But sometimes a mental model serves as a filter, resulting in selective knowledge “uptake,” i.e., people seek out or absorb only the information that matches their mental model, confirming what they already believe about an issue. This poses a potential stumbling block for climate change communicators.
Mental Models and the Confirmation Bias
A confirmation bias makes people look for information that is consistent with what they already think, want, or feel, leading them to avoid, dismiss, or forget information that will require them to change their minds and, quite possibly, their behavior. People often exhibit a strong preference for their existing mental models about climate change, making them susceptible to confirmation biases that lead them to misinterpret scientific data, as shown by the example at left.
How To Identify and Update Mental Models about Climate Change
The good news is that mental models are not static—people will update them by correcting misinformation, inserting new building blocks, and/or making new connections with existing knowledge. But for a presentation of new climate change information to succeed, communicators should first do their best to discover what climate change misconceptions the audience may have in its mental models. Communicators can then disconnect the erroneous climate change information from other parts of the model and replace it with new facts. The example below explores a common misconception that climate change communicators run into and how to counter it.
3 Carey, S. (1986). Cognitive science and science education. American Psychologist, 41(10), 1123-1130
4 Morgan, M., Fischhoff, B., Bostrom, A., et al. (2002). Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
5 Will, G. (2009, February 15). Dark Green. The Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/13/AR2009021302514.html
6 Revkin, A. (2008, March 2). Skeptics on human climate impact seize on cold spell. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/science/02cold.html?emc=eta1#
7 Lorenzoni, I., Leiserowitz, A., De Franca Doria, M., et al. (2006, April). Cross-national comparisons of image associations with “global warming” and “climate change” among laypeople in the United States of America and Great Britain. Journal of Risk Research, 9(3), 265-281.
8 Leiserowitz, A. (2007b) Communicating the risks of global warming: American risk perceptions, affective images and interpretive communities. In S. Moser and L. Dilling, (Eds.) Creating a climate for change: Communicating climate change and facilitating social change (pp. 44-63). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.