Using a Mental Model Approach to understand and compare expert and lay knowledge surrounding knife crime and trust in policing

How do young people understand and experience trust in the police in the context of knife crime?  How does their understanding compare to police officials’ understanding of the issue? And how can trust between young people and the police be improved?

These are just some of the questions that CinCity seeks to answer. To do this, we will employ the Mental Models Approach, a public-centred methodology from the field of risk communication.

What are the ‘Mental Models’ and why can we use them to investigate youth ‘trust in policing’?

Mental Models offer a way to explore what lay people think about a given topic. Initially, the mental model framework was pioneered to improve risk communication, based on the idea that to adequately address public concerns, we must first understand what the public already believes or knows about an issue. Mapping the initial understanding will, in turn, allow for a more successful risk communication, as researchers or practitioners have a clear understanding of lay people’s knowledge as well as potential gaps or misconceptions that differentiate lay from expert understanding (Morgan et al., 2002).

This is particularly important as lay people are more likely to reject or misinterpret new information that does not fit their existing mental model (Skarlatidou et al., 2012). Understanding these initial belief systems may, therefore, help to increase trust between lay audiences and experts.

We have previously used the mental models approach in the Crime Citizenship Policing (CPC) project to investigate the mental models of victims of crime and their perceptions about trust in policing. This pilot project revealed very interesting gaps and misconceptions not only in lay people’s mental models but also in those of experts (in terms of how they approach and attempt to improve trust with members of the public), and it was particularly helpful for uncovering what people – especially women – expect from policing in their interactions with the police. The final project report can be found here.

Using Mental Models in CinCity

Simply put, mental models are ‘snapshots’ or overviews of  the information, ideas and experiences that we, (as lay people or experts), have on a particular topic. They are schemata, or cognitive constructs, that allow us to make sense of the world. Following the Mental Models approach, in CityCity we will investigate both experts’ and lay people’s mental models through qualitative interviews with five police officers and 20 young people (16-24 years old). 

For CinCity, members of the police force are the experts as they have specialised knowledge on the issue at stake. After identifying the most crucial experts’ concepts through interviews, we will elicit young people’s understanding and experiences of knife crime and defining elements of trust in policing in a second step. The two mental models will then be used to draw comparisons, allowing us to identify in what aspects they differ or overlap, but also what we learn from each other’s perceptions. Combining these mental models offers a holistic understanding, that includes expert knowledge as much as experience – or emotion-based perspectives – to capture this, while special attention is paid to the vocabulary used.

We expect that CinCity will provide us with preliminary insights to understand young people’s misconceptions and knowledge gaps surrounding knife crime and more importantly their needs and expectations from policing in terms of re-establishing and building trust, which will be empowering not only in terms of designing appropriate and effective interventions but above all in terms of initiating a two-way communication and collaboration channel – which we will also trial in a roundtable meeting at the end of the project to communicate the main findings and which will be driven by young people themselves. In the project we want to ensure that young people are empowered to share their perceptions and needs surrounding knife crime and trust in policing and that their voices and lived experiences influence future decision-making and interventions to prevent knife crime in their local communities. 

For more information about the project contact Lina Ludwig or Dr Artemis skarlatidou 


Morgan, G., Fischhoff, B., Bostrom, A. and Atman, C.J. (2002) Risk Communication: A Mental Models Approach, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Skarlatidou, A.., Cheng, T., and Haklay, M. (2012) What do lay people want to know about nuclear waste? A mental models approach to the design and development of an online risk communication, International Journal of Risk Analysis, 32 (9), pp. 1496-1511


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