Mental models explain how we as individual humans understand the world. Our mental models are personal to us, influenced by our own culture and personal experiences.
When we encounter a situation we must gather the information in order to interpret it and anticipate future events. The first step of information gathering is known as perception. Within healthcare this information can be visual (such as the patient’s clinical condition, our co-workers behaviour or information from equipment such as a CTG), auditory (such as the sound of alarms, equipment or conversations) and in some cases, tactile (such as checking uterine tone after a birth, or checking the condition of the woman’s perineum before commencing suturing). These cues allow you to process and make sense of the information, including their significance. We then process this information to create a stored memory. These memories become stored mental models, "a knowledge structure that represents a combination of cues and their meaning". Our mental models allow us to quickly recognise and comprehend situations, whether this be a sequence of tasks or set of behavioural responses.
Novices have fewer and less rich mental models, spending more mental effort and time trying to understand the information received from their environment. They try to analyse environmental cues by systematic analysis, comparing possible interpretations of the information. This also happens to experienced practitioners when they are faced with a novel situation for the first time – demanding highly of their working memory. With experience, we have a larger number, and richer mental models, of situations. We are also able to understand and assess the situation's associated level of risk.
The result is that the mental model produces expectations about the characteristics of a given situation. An easy way to think of this is mental models therefore provide a single step link between a recognised situation and the typical actions that occur in response to this.
Flin R, O’Connor P, Crichton M. Safety at the Sharp End: A Guide to Non-technical Skills. New York: CRC Press; 2008.