Internal working models is a psychological concept first introduced by John Bowlby in conjunction with attachment theory. Bowlby proposed that “the nature of an infant’s attachment to the parent (or other primary caregiver) will become internalized as a working model of attachment” (Siegel, 2020, Kindle location 2,345).
According to Bowlby, when a child has a secure or anxious relationship with his primary caregivers, the model of this relationship is internalized. As the child ages, information flowing from new relationships are processed through these early models. Object relations theory presented this model which has continued to influence research for over a hundred years.
Our models become significant predictors of future relationships. If we see relationships as dangerous, fraught with deception and drama, the slightest clues spark discomforting emotions, and lead to protective defenses.
What are Internal Working Models
Internal working mental models are unconscious beliefs or models of the world that we use to interpret new experiences.
Daniel Siegel explains in detail that “mental models are akin to schema and are sometimes called invariant representations in that they have a persistent stability as they generalize experiences into a summation or model of a series of events.” Siegel continues “sometimes called an internal working model which is a mental representation, or a neural firing pattern, that creates in the person a felt sense that others are dependable and can and should be relied upon as needed.” These mental models are, “created by repeated past experience, mental models reinforce themselves by biasing ongoing perception to conform to expectations” (2012, Kindle location 3,471).
An internal working model is a mental representation that a child forms during early experiences. Typically, we use the concept in connection with attachment theory and a child’s internalized model of attachment derived from their relationship with a primary caregiver.
How are Mental Models Formed?
Jonathan Haidt, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains that internal mental models are “a property that emerges gradually during thousands of interactions” (2006). Early in our childhood development these repeated experiences imprint on our brains, almost in an unconscious “Ah-Ha” fashion. Our bodies and brains record a model, “oh, this is what a relationship is.”
Moving forward every other relationship is measured against our internal definition of relationships. However, this is not a cognitive word based definition. These models are imprinted in our brains and bodies and unconsciously impact later interpretations of similar experiments.
John Bowlby wrote that “each personality comes to be organized during the early years, with its own distinctive working models or, to use the traditional term, internal world, and on the strong influence thereafter that each individual’s models have in shaping his or her life” (1988, Kindle location 2,073).
Linda Graham, an expert on the neuroscience of human relationships, wrote “our earliest strategies of resilience are encoded in our brain’s neural circuitry before we have any conscious choice about them or conscious awareness of them” (2013, p. 38).
The developing human brain of the child is susceptible to surrounding environments, whether those environments are healthy or toxic. Graham explains that “since the hippocampus doesn’t fully mature until we’re about two and a half years old, our default coping strategies are already deeply embedded in our implicit memory by the time the hippocampus begins to translate raw experience into explicit memories” (p. 38). Our brains depend on healthy environments during the earliest years of our existence.
Secure or Insecure Models of Attachment
Daniel J. Siegel, a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, explains, “if this model represents security, the baby will be able to explore the world and to separate and mature in a healthy way. If the attachment relationship is ‘insecure,’ the internal working model of attachment will not give the infant a sense of a secure base, and the development of secure-base behaviors (such as play, exploration, and social interactions) may be impaired” (Kindle Location 2,347). Essentially, working models mold our evaluations.
Impact of Internal Mental Models on Futures
Bowlby coined the term “internal working model of attachment” to emphasize the powerful influence of the attachment system on future relationships. He suggests that these early experiences of attachment are imprinted on our brains, becoming a part of who we are.
Haidt wrote that “internal working models are fairly stable (though not unchangeable), guiding people in their most important relationships throughout their lives” (2006, Kindle location 2,311).
Siegel adds to this that “implicit mental models, the schemata that we don’t even know are coming from the past, can directly shape the themes of our life stories” (2012, Kindle location 3,488).
Mental Models are Essential
Mental models are essential for operating in a complex world. We will never know everything going on in this universe. Each encountered event has so many moving parts that we couldn’t even begin to sort everything into a logical, easy to understand problem with a right and wrong answer.
Richard Brodie wrote, “your brain doesn’t have enough storage capacity to accurately model the entire universe. The best you can do is come up with some simplified models that work most of the time” (2009). Even if we had enough storage capacity, we still couldn’t process everything because working memory would severely limit the mass data in mental computations. We need models that quickly and rudely make decisions from limited data.
Our ability to quickly assess and predict is a survival skill. Guy Claxton wrote, “the ability to distil out of our everyday experience useful maps and models of the world around us is very down-to-earth; so mundane that it is, in many ways, the unsung hero of the cognitive repertoire” (1999, p. 21).
Mental Models Beyond Attachment
We use these internal working models for a variety of experiences. We use models with most automatic responses. We believe we are seeing things as they are but because working models translate the information, we see things as we expect them to be. Reid Hastie and Robyn Dawes wrote that this function that “the essential cognitive function of maintaining a situation model that places us in our current context, prepared for action, is dominated by narrative formats” (2009, Kindle location 2,569). Hastie and Dawes explain that, “many prefabricated scenarios are available to our imaginations either because they correspond to stereotyped scripts or because they are available through particular past experiences” (location 2,879).
Bowlby also didn’t narrow the concept to only attachment models. He knew working models were a part of our cognitive hardware to unravel many complex life situations. “Bowlby writes of ‘working models’ that people build of themselves and the world, which are used to perceive events, construct plans, and forecast the future” (Janoff-Bulman, 2010, p. 5).
Sociologist Peter Morris refers to these internal working models as “our ‘structures of meaning,’ basic principles that are abstract enough to be applied to any event we encounter and thereby make life continuously intelligible” (p. 5). Accordingly, how we see life determines much of our experience. While working models powerfully impact our vision of the world, changing them is not so easy.
A Few Closing Remarks
Our internal working models of the world speed up our reaction to the ever flowing masses of data that pound our minds. They make wise choices possible. However, this cognitive super hero also has dangers. Since they work in the shadows of our minds, we sometimes operate to faulty models, that force new experiences into a familiar package but do not represent reality. Hurtful biases live here. The model becomes self sustaining, leading down similar paths, and limiting our lives.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “self-confirming biases, once set, reject opposing information, contorting experience to fit preconceived notions” (2017). Our models are amazingly stable but not immovable. Once we recognize their existence, and their impact, we can begin the difficult work of recreating a better updated model for that particular reoccurring event, improving our lives, and escaping our imperfect past.
Bowlby, John (1988). Secure Base. Basic Books; Reprint edition.
Brodie, Richard (2009). Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Hay House, Inc.
Claxton, Guy (1999). Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind: How Intelligence Increases When You Think Less. Ecco; Illustrated edition.
Fitzpatrick, M., Fey, J., Segrin, C., & Schiff, J. (1993). Internal Working Models of Relationships and Marital Communication. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 12(1-2), 103-131
Graham, Linda (2013). Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being. New World Library.
Haidt, Johnathan (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Basic Books; 1st edition
Hastie, Reid; Dawes, Robyn M. (2009). Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making. SAGE Publications, Inc; Second edition.
Janoff-Bulman, Ronnie (2010). Shattered Assumptions: Towards a New Psychology of Trauma. Free Press; Completely Updated edition.
Krakauer, S. (2014). Must Internal Working Models be Internalized? A Case Illustrating an Alternative Pathway to Attachment. Journal of Family Violence, 29(3), 247-258.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2017). Self-Confirming Biases. Psychology Fanatic. Published 10-2017. Accessed 8-26-2022.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind, Third Edition: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition .
Siegel, Daniel J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). W. W. Norton & Company; Third Printing Used edition.