Mental Models

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Introduction To Mental Models

Origin and Historical Development of Mental Models

explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world

Explanation of someone's thought process about how something works in the real world.

The concept of mental models has a rich and varied history, with roots in ancient philosophy and significant developments in psychology and cognitive science. This article will explore the origin and historical development of mental models, highlighting key contributors to the theory.

Ancient Philosophy

The idea of mental models can be traced back to the ancient philosophers. Plato, for instance, proposed the theory of Forms, suggesting that non-physical forms (or ideas) represent the most accurate reality. This can be seen as an early form of mental modeling, where abstract concepts are used to understand and interpret the world.

Aristotle, another ancient philosopher, also contributed to the development of mental models with his work on syllogisms, a kind of logical argument where conclusions are drawn from two connected premises. This form of reasoning is a fundamental mental model that we still use today.

Psychology and Cognitive Science

The term "mental models" was first introduced by the American psychologist Kenneth Craik in his 1943 book "The Nature of Explanation". Craik suggested that the mind constructs "small-scale models" of reality that it uses to anticipate events.

In the 1950s and 60s, the cognitive revolution in psychology led to a renewed interest in internal mental processes and the role of mental models. Psychologists like Jean Piaget studied how children develop mental models as they grow and learn about the world.

Key Contributors

One of the most influential figures in the study of mental models is the British psychologist Philip Johnson-Laird. His work in the 1980s and 90s focused on how we use mental models to reason and solve problems. Johnson-Laird proposed that our minds create a mental model for each unique situation we encounter, which we then manipulate to predict outcomes.

Another key contributor is the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who, along with Amos Tversky, developed the prospect theory, which describes how people make decisions based on the potential value of losses and gains. This work highlighted the role of mental models in decision-making and the biases that can affect them.


The concept of mental models has a long and varied history, with contributions from philosophy, psychology, and cognitive science. Understanding this history helps us appreciate the complexity and power of mental models in shaping our perception, reasoning, and decision-making. As we continue to learn more about mental models, we can better harness their power to improve our understanding and interaction with the world.