Mental models are of interest to human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers and many other cognitive scientists who seek to understand how people see things. Johnson-Laird (1983) is the psychologist whose work has contributed a foundation into mental model research the most. Usability and user experience researcher Don Norman (2013), trained in psychology, brought mental model research to HCI. But Kenneth Craik (2010), an often overlooked philosopher should be credited with the formulation of mental models as an important way to understand how people think.
Kenneth Craik’s was an early cognitive psychology researcher trained as a philosopher who wrote the seminal work on mental models, a theory of how people think things work, before his unfortunate death when a car collided with his bicycle. American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce first posited the idea of mental models (P. N. Johnson-Laird 2013) but it was Craik who fully developed the concept using philosophical approaches to delineate a cognitive psychology theory based on proving how humans reasoned.
Like many behavioural, cognitive, and social scientists, Craik drew from philosophy and applied it to explain a concrete problem for which he sought a clarification. Like many philosophers, Craik carefully read alternative philosophical discourses and proceed to eliminate each one until he could introduce his own theory of the mind.
It is important to understand that Craik did not start his endeavour by claiming that he had found a new theory of the mind. He presented his work as an attempt to explain how philosophy explained how people reasoned by making sense of the world with their senses. To achieve his goals, Craik felt it was important to rely on a method of inquiry to verify claims about how people think. And so, he relied on the experimental method as a way to philosophically move from a purely abstract inquiry into one that claimed that perception and cognition were at play in creating mental models.
Even those schooled in philosophy will find Craik’s work challenging, although it is never boring. While trying to stand apart from the developing debates between interpretive and positivists philosophers, he still took a side with positivism, to the extent that the experimental model was used as his method of inquiry, even if he did not advocate for a priori understandings and essentialism.
Nevertheless, for researchers interested in mental models, whether interpretivists or positivists, Craik’s work should be essential reading. It is very difficult but Chapter Five on the Hypothesis of Thought could easily be used in graduate surveys of HCI and a foundational text about mental model theory.
Craik, Kenneth. 2010. The Nature of Explanation Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Johnson-Laird, P. N. 2013. "Mental models and cognitive change." Journal of Cognitive Psychology 25 (2): 131-138.
Johnson-Laird, Philip N. 1983. Mental Models: Towards a Cognitive Science of Language, Inference, and Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Norman, Don. 2013. The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Basic Books.
Hervé Saint-Louis, PhD Candidate
Faculty of Information (iSchool)
University of Toronto
July 3, 2017