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Behavioral Geography: Human Spatial Behavior

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  • 0:04 To Travel or Not
  • 1:09 The Importance of the…
  • 3:29 Realistic Assumptions
  • 4:44 Criticism and Collaboration
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

How do you decide whether it's worth traveling somewhere? This lesson focuses on how individuals make decisions related to spatial interactions, such as whether it's too far to travel to a place or not.

To Travel or Not

Imagine there's been a major hurricane and a whole region has been affected by the damage. A woman named Dalia watches the news coverage from her home many states away and learns that there's a group of people in her area headed to a town that's requested help from volunteers. She debates whether she's willing to travel the distance to the area, trying to decide whether it's too far to go or not.

As Dalia considers the distance, she also reflects on how her grandparents used to live in the area where the damage is worst and how she remembers visiting there as a child. She can see the streets where she used to play and they're underwater. These memories will factor into whether she decides to travel the distance to the area.

This lesson looks at the field of behavioral geography, the study of how individual human beings make decisions in relationship to their spatial environment. We'll focus on the question of how a person perceives distance and discuss the contributions of this school of thought.

The Importance of the Individual

To better understand the roots of behavioral geography, let's look at some concepts that came before it. Geography considers how things and people move through space, which can often be tracked and shown through data. For instance, we can determine how many people take a particular highway or use a certain subway line or flight path based on records about these behaviors. Geographers have historically spent a good deal of time on this type of aggregated data, the kind of data that shows many people's behaviors put together to reveal trends.

Once you look at this level of human behavior, you start to notice patterns people have. For instance, one of these patterns is the gravity model, which at a basic level, states that movement declines with increasing distance. In other words, the farther away something is from your home, the less likely you are to travel there. In this model, a person who lives in Dalia's area is less likely to travel to the hurricane site than someone who lives closer to it.

Yet over time, some geographers also noticed that the concept of distance is relative to the individual person. What's close to you may seem far to your neighbor. Although distance can be measured in feet or meters, the way a person understands distance in their own mind will be different than the person next to them.

For example, to some people, a city like Paris is a world away, somewhere they may never travel, while for others Paris is a familiar place and a place they've been many times before, a place they can afford to travel - so a lot closer in their minds. This matters a great deal when determining how likely a person is to travel there.

This perspective that the individual's own mind matters in how they make decisions and move through the world is a very important aspect of behavioral geography. Behavioral geographers are interested in disaggregated data, data that focuses on the individual. A behavioral geographer would be interested in how a particular person chooses whether to go to Paris or not, along with many other questions about movement of human beings.

Realistic Assumptions

Why would it be useful for a behavioral geographer to understand the perspective of an individual, such as Dalia, who's deciding whether to travel to the hurricane site?

One of the major contributions that behavioral geography can make by looking at the individual is in gaining a more realistic view of how human beings make decisions. Let's say, for instance, that researchers assume that the further away a person is from the site of a natural disaster, the less likely they are to volunteer to travel there to help with relief efforts, based on the gravity model. What about Dalia's family background in that region or her passion for volunteering? These factors would also influence whether she views the site of the disaster as close or far away, worthy of her energy to travel there, or not.

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