Mental models for conservation research and practice

Katie Moon*, Angela M. Guerrero, Vanessa M. Adams, Duan Biggs, Deborah A. Blackman, Luke Craven, Helen Dickinson, Helen Ross

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)
13 Downloads (Pure)


Conservation practice requires an understanding of complex social-ecological processes of a system and the different meanings and values that people attach to them. Mental models research offers a suite of methods that can be used to reveal these understandings and how they might affect conservation outcomes. Mental models are representations in people's minds of how parts of the world work. We seek to demonstrate their value to conservation and assist practitioners and researchers in navigating the choices of methods available to elicit them. We begin by explaining some of the dominant applications of mental models in conservation: revealing individual assumptions about a system, developing a stakeholder-based model of the system, and creating a shared pathway to conservation. We then provide a framework to “walk through” the stepwise decisions in mental models research, with a focus on diagram-based methods. Finally, we discuss some of the limitations of mental models research and application that are important to consider. This work extends the use of mental models research in improving our ability to understand social-ecological systems, creating a powerful set of tools to inform and shape conservation initiatives.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere12642
Number of pages11
JournalConservation Letters
Issue number3
Early online date7 Mar 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2019. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Bayesian belief networks
  • cognitive maps
  • decision-making
  • influence diagrams
  • modeling
  • perceptions
  • pragmatism
  • qualitative
  • social science
  • social-ecological system


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