A mental model is a hypothetical internal cognitive symbol that represents external reality or the mental imagery of things that are not actually present to the senses.

What that means is we see the world around us as a structure. And everything relates to everything else. Mental models are simplifying ‘small-scale models’ of reality (Craik, 1943) that help us deal with input overload and information processing.

Let’s make this a bit more tangible. Imagine drawing a scarf. Nobody would go ahead and portray every little detail of a real scarf, like its fibres and the way it’s woven. Instead, we draw a model of a scarf, including all features necessary to recognise it and maybe some other elements that are important to you as the person drawing. Like any kind of model, mental models are not correct, complete or perfect, but very useful and practical for our everyday life. Research even suggests that mental models, rather than logic, are responsible for our reasoning, problem-solving, and behaviour.

Here is where it becomes relevant for marketability and consumption behaviour.

People make purchase decisions based on their mental models. So, any idea that seems brilliant to you might be worthless to others, if the aspect that you think makes the idea brilliant is not presented high enough up in the hierarchy in their heads.

The point is figuring out what matters to customers and communicating this to them.

How to define people’s mental models
Mental Model and Pathway groups
Asking potential customers is a good way and it’s not uncommon either. But people are not aware of their mental models and they couldn’t define them even when deliberately thinking about them. So how can they reveal their internal reality to us?

Less is more

You need to frame your questions without being too specific. The scarf that you were drawing earlier – imagine you want to produce and launch it now and you want it to be made of a special kind of wool. Sounds marketable? It is definitely logical to assume that customers care about the type of wool for their scarves assuring that it’s warm and soft etc. You decide to do a few focus groups and ask people how they would like a scarf made of that special wool. They would think about it and come to the logical conclusion of liking it. You go ahead and launch the new scarf, but it turns out no one is buying it.

  • What went wrong? You asked for explicit attitudes instead of implicit models
  • What to do instead? Ask questions such as: what comes to mind when you think about scarves? Why?
  • What does this do? People have to structure their answers themselves – and the way they do that (unaware of doing anything) tells you their mental model

e.g. If people mention materials before anything else, this means it is valuable to them and they are likely to pay for it and visa versa.

In short, your brilliant special-wool scarf idea is very likely to be successful if most people say:

  • “I’d buy a scarf {1} made of wool – and if there are several options, I would then choose the {2} cheaper one.”

And your focus for launching a new scarf needs to be price if people tend to say:

  • “I always go for the {1} cheaper one, hope it comes in a {2} dark colour, and if there are still several options I might look for a nice sort of {3} wool”

Focus groups, where you ask these kinds of semi-guided open questions, can be very confusing for the participants; some are expecting to tell you their opinion about specific objects and become frustrated by having to e.g. rank parameters without a further specific context. They don’t realise they are giving information about their implicit mental model, and they especially don’t feel in control of the explicit information they do reveal.

But this is exactly the information that predicts their actions in the store. And you can do lots of hierarchy and cross-referencing relationships with mental models too – it’s not simply a linear scale. So, stay strong and don’t prime them even when they are asking for help – the insight you get into how people will react to your brilliant scarf idea is worth it.

(Also works for non-scarfs, obviously.)

Craik, K. (1943), The Nature of Explanation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Johnson‐Laird, P. N. (1980). Mental models in cognitive science. Cognitive science, 4(1), 71-115.
Johnson-Laird, P. N. (2006). Mental models, sentential reasoning, and illusory inferences. In Advances in Psychology (Vol. 138, pp. 27-51). North-Holland.
Peirce, C. S. (1965). Collected papers of charles sanders peirce (Vol. 5). Harvard University Press.

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