Mental Models, Risk Communications, a New Book


Mental models, mind sets, world views all mean basically the same thing – how humans perceive the world around them and how these perceptions affect their decision making and behaviour.

When it comes to communicating about risk, getting insight into people’s mental models goes a long way to helping your communications strategies and materials do what they’re supposed to do – convince people to make decisions and take actions to keep safe.

Whether it’s getting workers to wear proper protective equipment (PPE) and adopt safe work practices or helping consumers understand the risks and benefits of prescription drugs, risk communications is all about supplying lay people with the information they need to make informed decisions and judgments about risk to health, safety and the environment. It’s both an academic discipline and communications practice area.

Finding out what people need to know

A cardinal rule in risk communication is you need to understand what people don’t know that they need to know about a certain risk or complex issue. How does one do that?

One way is to study people’s mental models through in-depth one-on-one qualitative research interviews with a small sample of respondents using open-ended questions. The aim of this research is to not only know what they think, but why they think that way. This information and insight are then compared to the expert knowledge, often represented in a graphical form, called an “expert model”. This allows for gaps and alignments between expert and lay thinking on a particular topic to be identified, and then used to inform communications strategy and materials. One of the benefits of this research is that it can reveal unexpected insights that could not have been predicted by experts, and those insights can make a world of difference in whether your risk communications succeed or not.

This approach, sometimes called the “mental models research approach”, is at the heart of the research consulting work I do as Senior Researcher with Decision Partners, which brings me to some exciting news.

A new book – mental models case studies

I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new book in this topic written by five of my colleagues and edited by yours truly. Mental Modeling: Risk Management Application Case Studies (Springer) was written to help communications specialists and others deal with risk communications challenges. It presents a cross-sectoral overview of the myriad ways this approach can be applied in real world settings. Case study examples include stakeholder consultation in the energy sector, mine worker safety, flood risk management, food safety and preparedness for a chemical release emergency.

For many of these projects, I was directly involved in the primary research through in-depth mental models interviews and am immensely proud to have participated in and contributed to this body of work.

Congratulations to the five authors and to all the contributors, and special thanks to Melinda (Lindy) Paul, our editor at Springer. What a wonderful way to wrap up 2016 and celebrate the holidays!