Cognitive Map: Definition and Examples

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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 the attributes of our environment. Learn more about cognitive maps from examples. Then test your knowledge with a quiz.


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.


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.

More Examples

Suppose Jill and Lisa went out to eat to a restaurant during their visit. Jill had to go to the bathroom to change her baby's diaper, so she asked her waitress where it was located. The waitress tells her that to get to the bathroom she needs to follow the path with the red carpet and make a right when she sees the tall plant. The waitress was using a cognitive map to tell Jill how to get to the bathroom.

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