The sustainable management of natural resources largely depends upon people’s conceptions of environmental systems and how they function. The mental model construct provides an appropriate means to explore the cognitive dimension of people’s interactions with such systems. Mental models are cognitive representations of external reality that people use as the basis for acting with and within the world around them. Within the field of psychology and cognitive science, mental models are the cognitive structure upon which reasoning, decision-making and behaviour are based (Johnson-Laird 1983). In the context of resource management, mental models can provide insight into the cognitive framework which underpins people’s reasoning, decision-making and behaviour in relation to a given resource. In doing so, the mental model construct can shed light on peoples’ diverse, often conflicting, views on how natural resources should be used and managed. This knowledge can provide a platform to support communication and negotiation processes to mitigate unsustainable practices.
The mental model construct provides a theoretically appealing way to account for the way in which people internally represent the world. However, the elicitation of mental models in the context of natural resource management practice has been identified as an important area of research requiring further attention. The objective of this study is to improve the application of the mental model construct to the field of natural resource management, with an emphasis upon creek (stream) systems, by exploring how certain elicitation procedures may affect the mental models expressed. One of the initial hurdles that must be overcome is to work out how to effectively elicit peoples’ mental models of complex, dynamic phenomena. This research addresses this issue by comparing the relative benefits of using different elicitation procedures. By improving our understanding of mental model elicitation procedures, researchers can make better use of the mental model construct to further explore the cognitive and social dimensions of human-environment interactions.
The research, conducted in Queensland (Australia), targeted landholders’ mental models of creek systems. The procedures compared were oral interviews, and a drawing task with oral commentary; conducted at either a creek location (where visual cues were available) or in the interviewee’s home. The study found that the location of the interview had a greater effect on the expressed mental models than the interview task. The locations evoked different emphases in the mental models: those elicited by a creek featured more concepts and were more specific, while those elicited at home were typically more generic. The interview task was found to have minimal effect on the mental models expressed, though interviewees engaged more enthusiastically with the oral task than with drawing.