Situation Model Research Paper

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For, it being once furnished with simple ideas, it [the mind] can put them together in several compositions, and so make variety of complex ideas, without examining whether they exist so together in nature (John Locke 1690 An Essay Concerning Human Understanding).

When we read a story, we combine the ideas derived from understanding words, clauses, and sentences into mental representations of events, people, objects, and their relations. These representations are called situation models. Thus, situation models are not representations of the text itself; rather, they could be viewed as mental microworlds. Constructing these microworlds is the essential feature of understanding. At the most basic level, situation models are mental representations of events. Aspects of events that are encoded in situation models are: what their nature is, where, when, and how they occur, and who and what is involved in them. Single-event models are integrated with models of related events constructed based on the preceding text, such that situation models may evolve into complex integrated representations of large numbers of related events. This is what occurs when we comprehend extended discourse, such as news articles, novels, or historical documents.

1. Background

Situation models were introduced to cognitive psychology by van Dijk and Kintsch (1983) and are based on earlier research in formal semantics and logic (e.g., Kripke 1963). The concept is primarily used in research on language and discourse comprehension. For a good understanding, it is important to distinguish situation models from similar concepts, such as mental models, scripts, and frames.

2. How Situation Models Differ

2.1 Mental Models

Originally proposed by Craik (1943) and elaborated and introduced to cognitive psychology by Johnson-Laird (1983), mental models are mental representations of real, hypothetical, or imaginary situations. Situation models can be viewed as a special type of mental model. Situation models are mental models of specific events. They are bound in time and space, whereas mental models in general are not. For example, heart surgeons have mental models of our blood circulatory system, but they construct a situation model of the state of patient X’s coronary artery at time (t).

2.2 Scripts And Frames

Originally proposed in the artificial intelligence literature by Schank and Abelson (1977) and Minsky (1975), respectively, scripts and frames are representations of stereotypical sequences of events, such as going to a restaurant and spatial layouts, such as that of a living room or the interior of a church. Comprehenders use scripts and frames to construct situation models. For example, the restaurant script can be used to construct a mental representation of your friend’s visit to a local Italian restaurant last night. This is accomplished by filling in the slots of the script. Thus, scripts and frames can be considered types, whereas situation models are tokens. Furthermore, scripts and frames are semantic memory representations, whereas situation models are episodic memory representations.

3. Other Representations Constructed During Comprehension

It is often assumed that readers construct multilevel mental representations during text comprehension. Although there is no complete consensus as to what other types of mental representations, besides situation models, are constructed during text comprehension, empirical and intuitive evidence for the role of the following representations has been put forth. The surface structure is a mental representation of the actual wording of the text. Surface–structure representations are typically short-lived in memory, except when they have a certain pragmatic relevance (for example in the case of insults or jokes) or when the surface structure is constrained by prosodic features, such as rhyme and meter, as in some poetry.

The textbase is a mental representation of the semantic meaning of what was explicitly stated in the text. The textbase usually decays rather rapidly. That is, within several days, comprehenders are unable to distinguish between what they read and what they inferred. Some researchers view the textbase simply as that part of the situation model that was explicitly stated (rather than implied) and thus deny the textbase a special status. Analyses of naturalistic discourse suggest that comprehenders not only construct a model of the denoted situation, but also construct a model of the communicative context. For example, they make inferences about the attitudes of writers regarding the situation they describe. Van Dijk (1999) calls this type of representation ‘context model’ and argues that no account of discourse comprehension is complete without the inclusion of a context model.

4. Why Situation Models Are Needed To Explain Language Use

A task analysis of text comprehension shows the need for situation models. For example, when we comprehend the instructions that come with a household appliance, we form mental representations of the actions needed to operate or repair the device. It would be of little use to construct a mental representation of the wording of instructions themselves. Similarly, when we read newspaper articles, our usual goal is to learn and be updated about some news event. For example, we want to know how the United States House of Representatives responded to the latest budget proposal by the President or why the latest peace negotiations in the Middle East came to a halt. In these cases, we construct mental representations of agents, events, goals, plans, and outcomes, rather than merely mental representations of clauses and words.

5. Components Of Situation Models

Situation models are models of events. Events always occur at a certain time and place. In addition, events typically involve participants (agents and patients) and objects. Furthermore, events often entertain causal relations with other events or are part of a goalplan structure. Thus, time, place, participants, objects, causes and effects, and goals and plans are components of situations, with time and place being obligatory. As linguists have observed, most of these components are routinely encoded in simple clauses. Verbs typically describe events (although some events can also be described by nouns, e.g., explosion), while nouns and pronouns denote participants and objects (although pronouns can also denote events) and prepositions primarily denote spatial relations (although spatial relations can also be denoted by, for instance, verbs, as in ‘The nightstand supported a lamp’ and prepositions can be used to indicate temporal relationships, as in ‘In an hour’). Temporal information can be expressed lexically in a variety of ways, but is also encoded grammatically in the form of verb tense and aspect in languages such as English, German, and French. Causation and intentionality are denoted lexically by verbs (e.g., ‘caused,’ ‘decided to’) or adverbs (e.g., ‘therefore,’ ‘in order to’), but are often left to be inferred by the comprehender. For example, there is no explicitly stated causal connection between following two events ‘John dropped a banana peel on the floor. The waiter slipped,’ yet comprehenders can easily infer the connection. Participants and objects may have various kinds of properties, such as having blue eyes or a cylindrical shape, and temporary features, such as being sunburnt or overheated. Finally, participants and objects may be related in various ways (e.g., kinship, professional, ownership, part–whole, beginning–end, and so on).

6. A Simple Example

A simple example illustrates these points. Consider the following clause:

(1) John threw the bottle against the wall.

This clause describes an event (throw) that involves a male agent (John), and two objects (bottle, wall). The simple past tense indicates that the event occurred prior to the moment at which the sentence was uttered (e.g., as opposed to John will throw the bottle against the wall ). John’s location is not explicitly stated, but we infer it is in relative proximity to the wall. We may draw inferences as to the causal antecedent and consequent of this event. A plausible antecedent is that John was angry. A plausible consequent is that the bottle will break.

Comprehenders are more likely to infer causal antecedents than causal consequences. Note that there are many other inferences that could be drawn. For example, one might infer that John is a middle-aged man and that the bottle was a wine bottle and that it was green and half-filled. One might also infer that the wall was a brick wall, and so on. Comprehenders typically make relatively few of this kind of elaborative inferences. Rather, they are focused on the causal chain of events (Graesser et al. 1994).

7. Situation Models Establish Coherence

A major role of situation models in discourse comprehension is to help establish coherence. Suppose sentence (1) were followed in the text by (2):

(2) It shattered into a thousand pieces.

How would this sentence be comprehended? If the two sentences are part of a discourse, rather than read in isolation, they would have to be integrated in some fashion. They are about some set of events. Comprehenders assume by default that a new sentence will describe the next event in the chronological sequence. Thus, they will assume that the event described in (2) directly follows that in (1). This implies temporal contiguity between (1) and (2). The use of the simple past tense is consistent with this assumption. Event 2 occurs prior to the moment of utterance, but after event 1. Given that no passage of time was mentioned, temporal contiguity is assumed.

The pronoun it in sentence (2) is taken to refer to some entity already in the situation model. There are three potential referents, John, the bottle, and the wall. John is not appropriate, because animate male human beings require the pronoun he. However, the bottle and the wall are both inanimate and thus compatible with the pronoun. Because there is no linguistic way to select the proper referent, the comprehender will use background knowledge that bottles are typically made out of glass, which is breakable, and walls out of harder materials, such as brick or concrete, to infer that it was the bottle that broke. The absence of a time lapse and the presence of an object from the previous event will cause the comprehender to assume that the second event takes place in roughly the same spatial region as the first, given that the same object cannot be at two different places at the same time.

Thus, the two events can now be integrated into a single situation model in which an agent, a male individual named John, at t1 threw a breakable object, a bottle, against a wall, presumably out of anger, which immediately, at t2, caused the bottle to break into pieces. This is how situation models provide coherence in discourse. Discourse is more than a sequence of sentences. Rather, it is a coherent description of a sequence of events that are related on several dimensions. Situation model theory attempts to account for how these events are successively integrated into a coherent mental representation.

8. Situation Models Integrate Textual Information With Background Knowledge

Another function of situation models is that they allow for the integration of text-derived information with the comprehender’s background knowledge. Consider the following examples (from Sanford and Garrod 1998):

(3) Harry put the wallpaper on the table. Then he put his mug of coffee on the paper.

It is rather straightforward to integrate these sentences. They call for a spatial arrangement in which the paper is on top of the table and the mug on top of the paper and the coffee inside the mug. However, consider the following sentence pair, which differs from (3) by only one word:

(4) Harry put the wallpaper on the wall. Then he put his mug of coffee on the paper.

Many readers will have difficulty integrating these sentences, because this discourse snippet describes an impossible set of circumstances. Realizing this impossibility relies critically on the activation of background knowledge. In this case the knowledge that putting wallpaper on a wall produces a vertical surface which would not support a mug of coffee. Thus, even though (or, rather, because) there are linguistic cues in the second sentence affording integration with the first—the pronoun can be taken to refer to Harry, and paper to wallpaper—this integration of text-derived information does not produce the correct understanding that the described situation is impossible. It is necessary to activate the requisite background knowledge to make this determination. By extension, the requisite background knowledge will help the comprehender construct an adequate representation in (3).

9. Other Functions Of Situation Models

Situation models are needed in translation. Word-for-word translations yield nonsense in most cases. In order to arrive at a proper translation, one has to construct a situation model based on the source language and then convey this situation model in the target language.

Situation models are needed to explain learning from text. When we read a newspaper article about a current event, for example a war, we update our situation model of this event. We learn what the status of the actors and objects and their relations is at a new time. We would not learn by simply storing a mental representation of the text itself in long-term memory. In fact, what we know about a current and historical political situation, is usually an amalgam of information obtained from various sources (TV news, newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias, conversations with friends, and so on).

10. The Representational Format Of Situation Models

Situation models often have an almost perceptual quality. In the example about the bottle, the first thing we construct is an agent, next is his action, next is the instrument of the action, and subsequently, we see the consequence of the action. There is a debate regarding the perceptual nature of situation models. Traditionally, an amodal propositional format has been proposed for situation models (van Dijk and Kintsch 1983, Kintsch 1998). However, others have proposed perceptual symbols (Barsalou 1999, Glenberg 1997, Johnson-Laird 1983).

In an amodal propositional representation, there is no analog correspondence between the mental representation and its referent. In a perceptual–symbol representation, there is. As a result, perceptual symbols represent more of the perceptual qualities of the referent than do amodal symbols, which are an arbitrary code. One of the major challenges of situation-model research will be to gather empirical evidence that speaks to the distinction between amodal and perceptual symbol systems as the representational format for situation models.

Both amodal and perceptual symbol systems allow for the possibility that information constructed from a text and activated background knowledge from long-term memory have the same representational format, such that they can be integrated quite easily. This is an important quality, because the integration of text-derived information with background knowledge is an essential feature of comprehension.

11. Empirical Evidence

There is a wealth of empirical evidence supporting the notion of a situation model (see Zwaan and Radvansky 1998 for a review). Most of this evidence consists of reaction times collected while people are reading texts. In addition, there is an increasing amount of electrophysiologal evidence (see, for example, Munte et al. 1998). Analyses of reading times, as well as electrophysiological measures suggest that comprehenders have difficulty integrating a new event into the situation model when that event has different situational parameters from the previously described event, for instance when it occurs in a different time frame or involves a new participant. Evidence suggests that ease of integration of an event depends on its relatedness to the evolving situation model on each of the five situational dimensions.

Probe-recognition studies show that the activation levels of concept decrease after a change in situational parameters (e.g., a shift in time, space, participant, or goal structure). For example, people recognize the word ‘checked’ more quickly after having read ‘He checked his watch. A moment later, the doorbell rang’ than after ‘He checked his watch. An hour later, the doorbell rang.’ Thus, the ‘here and now’ of the narrated situation tends to be more accessible to comprehenders than other information. This, of course, mimics our everyday interaction with the world.

Analyses of memory-retrieval data shows that people tend to store events together in long-term memory based on the time and location at which they occur, the participants they involve, whether they are causally related and whether or not they are part of the same goal-plan structure. There is evidence that memory retrieval is influenced by a combination of the link strengths between events on the five situational dimensions. It has furthermore been shown that people’s long-term memory for text typically reflects the situation that was described; memory representations for the discourse itself are much less resistant to decay or interference.

12. Computational Models

Kintsch (1998) has developed a computational model of text comprehension, the construction-integration model. In this model, a network consisting of nodes representing the surface structure, the textbase, and the situation models is successively constructed and integrated in a sequence of cycles. The construction of the network is done by hand. The nodes are propositions (or surface structure elements) and the links between them can be based on a variety of criteria, such as argument overlap, causal relatedness, or other aspects of situational relatedness. Integration occurs computationally by way of a constraint-satisfaction mechanism. Simulations using the construction– integration model have been most successful in (quantitatively) predicting text recall. In addition, the model has been shown to provide qualitative fit with a variety of findings in text comprehension, such as anaphoric resolution and sentence recognition. Similar models have been proposed by other researchers. Like the construction-integration model, these models include aspects of situation-model construction. However, there currently exists no full-fledged computational model of situation-model construction.

13. Beyond Language

Situation models have significance beyond the domain of text comprehension. Researchers are beginning to apply this concept to other domains of cognitive psychology, such as the comprehension of visual media (e.g., movies) and autobiographical memory. In the first case, situation models are acquired vicariously, as in language comprehension, but, in part, on nonlinguistic visual and auditory information. In the second case, they are acquired via direct experience. The question of whether and how the mode of acquisition affects the nature of situation models is a fruitful one.

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