Internal representation refers to a person's conception of either self, other, or relationships. Depending on the writer and school of psychology, similar concepts may be described as inner working models, core concepts, or schemas.
Internal representations cannot be directly observed. Rather, they are inferred based on speech, writing, or psychological instruments such as projective tests. For example, the Rorschach test, which is commonly scored using John Exner's Comprehensive System, may be scored using Jeffrey Urist's Mutuality of Autonomy Scale which codes for representations on a continuum from cooperative to malevolent. "Two children playing together and talking to each other" is a Rorschach response that is positive in that two people are engaged in a shared activity with explicit recognition of each of the members. "This is a terrible explosion, everything is dead and disintegrated," would be an example of a Rorschach response produced from someone whose internal representations are devoid of benevolence. Of course, little can be inferred from small samples of behavior and converging findings (across measures and within the same measure) are essential to sound psychological inference.
One behaves in relation to the world as the world is structured by his or her internal representations. If one's internal representation of the other is basically benevolent and good, then they will relate to the other with that expectation. In this manner, the concept of internal representations assumes a constructivist or phenomenological orientation. The world is known not as such, but as construed by one's representations.
Internal representations are shaped based on one's early relationships with caregivers and are altered throughout the lifespan. Experiences of neglect and abuse may skew one's representations of self and other toward that of malevolence, just as a single caring individual may assist in the development of positive representations. However, the correspondence between early experiences and later representations is never one to one.
Concepts of multifinality and equifinality assist in understanding etiology in psychology and are introduced here but require extensive elaboration. Equifinality refers to the many possible past events that can lead to the same eventual outcome. Multifinality is the converse idea that any single past event may result in multiple final outcomes. Specific internal representations are assumed to have been created from multiple past interactions and a careful analysis of any of these past interactions would be unlikely to predict the final outcome.
The focus on internal representations in treatment is common in psychoanalytic approaches, especially those in the object relations and self psychology traditions. Cognitive-behavioral approaches visit the same ideas under the concept of interpersonal schemas. In general, a therapist would be interested in understanding the patient's internal representations and in modifying the representations to facilitate healthier and more effective adaptation to life circumstances.