An important function and property of the human cognitive system is the ability to extract important information out of textually and verbally described situations. This ability plays a vital role in understanding and remembering. But what happens to this information after it is extracted, how do we represent it and how do we use it for inferencing? With this chapter we introduce the concept of a “situation model” (van Dijk&Kintsch, 1983, “mental model”: Johnson-Laird, 1983), which is the mental representation of what a text is about. We discuss what these representations might look like and show the various experiments that try to tackle these questions empirically. By assuming situations to be encoded by perceptual symbols (Barsalou, 1999), the theory of Situation Models touches many aspects of Cognitive Philosophy, Linguistics and Artificial Intelligence. In the beginning of this chapter, we will mention why Situation Models are important and what we use them for. Next we will focus on the theory itself by introducing the four primary types of information - the situation model components, its Levels of Representation and finally two other basic types of knowledge used in situation model construction and processing (general world knowledge and referent specific knowledge).
Situation models not only form a central concept in theories of situated cognition that helps us in understanding how situational information is collected and how new information gets integrated, but they can also explain many other phenomena. According to van Dijk & Kintsch, situation models are responsible for processes like domain-expertise, translation, learning from multiple sources or completely understanding situations just by reading about them. These situation models consist, according to most researches in this area, of five dimensions, which we will explain later. When new information concerning one of these dimensions is extracted, the situation model is changed according to the new information. The bigger the change in the situation model is, the more time the reader needs for understanding the situation with the new information. If there are contradictions, e.g. new information which does not fit into the model, the reader fails to understand the text and probably has to reread parts of the text to build up a better model. It was shown in several experiments that it is easier to understand texts that have only small changes in the five dimensions of text understanding. It also has been found that it is easier for readers to understand a text if the important information is more explicitly mentioned. For this reason several researchers wrote about the importance of fore-grounding important information (see Zwaan&Radvansky 1998 for a detailed list). The other important issue about situation models is the multidimensionality. Here the important question is how are the different dimensions related and what is their weight for constructing the model. Some researchers claim that the weight of the dimensions shifts according to the situation which is described. Introducing such claims will be the final part of this chapter and aims to introduce you to current and future research goals.
The VIP: Rolf A. Zwaan
Rolf A. Zwaan, born September 13, 1962 in Rotterdam (the Netherlands), is a very important person for this topic, since he made the most research (92 publications in total), and also because most of our data is taken from his work. Zwaan did his MA (1986) and his Ph.D. (1992) at the Utrecht University (Netherlands), both cum laude. Since then he collected multiple awards like the Developing Scholar Award (Florida state University, 1999) or the Fellow of the Hanse Institute for Advanced Study (Delmenhorst, Germany, 2003) and became member of several Professional Organisations like the Psychonomic Society, the Cognitive Science Society or the American Psychological Society. He works as Chair of the Biology & Cognitive Psychology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam (Netherlands), since 2007.