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Modeling Human–System Interaction by Thomas B. Sheridan

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10 MENTAL MODELS

WHAT IS A MENTAL MODEL?

At this point, it is important to consider what have been called mental models. These are not what we have been calling scientific models (i.e., derived from openly available and measurable evidence, and rendered in words, graphics, or mathematics so that anyone can make the same observation to try to get the same result). In contrast, mental models are hypothetical renderings of objects or events in the brain of a person. The events from which they are inferred are private to the subject, but an experimenter can repeat an experiment to see if the subject says or does actions that lead the experimenter to the same inference. Depending on context, a mental model can incorporate notions of sequence or movement in time, probability, value, contingency (what if), explanation, and are often visual. They need not be limited to empirical facts, but can be imaginings.

There is no way to know with certainty what anyone’s mental model actually is. One can only make inferences from what the subjects say, how they act, what choices they make in a contrived experiment, or what they put on paper, and trusting that they are telling the truth about their thoughts. Clever experiments comparing skilled task performance with the subject’s verbalization of what they were thinking (Sanderson, 1989) have allowed inferences of mental models. Presumably, scientific models have evolved from such studies of the mental modeling process, refined over time ...

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