Cognitive Map: Definition and Examples

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Cognitive maps are mental images of environmental attributes that aid in navigation, giving directions, and recalling information. Explore the definition and examples of cognitive maps and discover who coined this phrase. Updated: 11/11/2021


Jill and Lisa are two close friends who met in college. Since they live in different cities, they don't get to visit each other as often as they used to. After Jill gave birth to her first daughter, Lisa decided to pay her a visit. Once she arrived in town and picked up a gift for the new baby, Lisa called Jill to get directions to her house. Without putting in much effort, Jill was able to tell Lisa exactly how to get to her house from the boutique where she bought the gift. Jill did not have to look at a map or use any other aids to give directions; it was all done from memory. But how was she able to do this? To answer this question, we must explore the concept of cognitive maps.

A cognitive map is a mental picture or image of the layout of one's physical environment. The term was first coined by a psychologist named Edward Tolman in the 1940s. Cognitive maps can help us navigate unfamiliar territory, give directions, and learn or recall information. When we create cognitive maps, we often omit information that is irrelevant to the task at hand. This means that they can differ from the actual environment we are mapping.

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Functional Fixedness in Psychology: Definition & Examples

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 Definition
  • 1:07 Example
  • 1:50 More Examples
  • 2:28 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed


Let's look at the Jill and Lisa example a bit more closely. Jill has taken in multiple signals and cues from her environment, which allowed her to create a cognitive map of routes to her house. So when Lisa asked Jill for directions to her house, Jill was able to create a mental image of the street names, businesses, and landmarks along the way and relate that information to Lisa. This mental representation is a cognitive map.

Humans are not the only animals that have this ability. For example, Tolman conducted a research study using rats and determined that rats use cognitive maps to find where rewards in a maze are located. This suggests that rats are able to create and use cognitive maps to help them navigate their environment.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it now
Create an account to start this course today
Used by over 30 million students worldwide
Create an account