Cognitive Map Types & Examples

Mary Ellise Schiffer, Yolanda Williams
  • Author
    Mary Ellise Schiffer

    Mary Ellise has a M.S. in Environmental Science and Policy and a B.A. in Earth Systems Science from Clark University. She has taught science and writing to students in grades kindergarten through college.

  • Instructor
    Yolanda Williams

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

Learn about cognitive maps. Understand what a cognitive map is, read Tolman's conceptualization regarding cognitive maps, and see examples of cognitive maps. Updated: 02/13/2022

Table of Contents


What is a Cognitive Map?

When navigating and giving directions, one must have an idea of different routes and landmarks. What is a cognitive map? A mental image of the environment's layout is known as a cognitive map.

Cognitive maps help people recall and learn information about the physical environment and are created by picking up on environmental signals and cues. Cognitive maps help people navigate both familiar and unfamiliar areas. Cognitive maps can be applied at different scales, from finding the bathroom down the hallway to navigating across town. Irrelevant and unimportant information is omitted from cognitive maps. Generally, cognitive maps are constructed through landmarks, street names, and left/right directions.

Cognitive maps are created by unconsciously memorizing signals from the physical environment, such as landmarks, turns, or street names. After creating a cognitive map, aids such as maps and GPS are not necessary.

Girl reading map while sitting on the hood of car stopped on the side of the road.

The cognitive map definition is based on latent learning, or learning without reinforcement or punishment. Creation of cognitive maps is often done without conscious involvement. The behavior (e.g. giving directions) is not shown immediately after creating the map but, instead, when the situation requires the knowledge (e.g. a friend is lost and asks for help).

Tolman's Cognitive Map

In the early 1900s, the field of psychology was beginning to develop as a scientific discipline. Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner pioneered experiments about behavior and learning. Their theories of behaviorism posited that punishment and reinforcement can condition human behavior and responses to stimuli. At this time in psychology, most believed behavior was caused mainly by a series of responses to positive and negative stimuli. For example, researchers accepted that rats moved through mazes based on trial and error, learning routes only if given reinforcement such as food.

In 1930, Edward Tolman challenged the dominant belief of simple stimulus-response learning theories in behavioral psychology by testing if rats could learn the maze without reinforcement. Tolman supported the idea of latent learning, or learning that is not immediately expressed as behavior or response. Latent learning is not based on positive and negative punishment and reinforcement. Tolman designed a research study to quantifiably test if rats could exhibit latent learning.

Tolman designed a research study which found that rats can create cognitive maps of a maze through latent learning.

Tolman created a complex maze and introduced three groups of rats. Once per day, each rat was timed on how fast they could complete the maze. Each group would either always, never, or after ten days receive a reward of food upon completing the maze. In all groups, rats improved their time and made fewer errors after repeating the maze multiple times.

Interestingly, between days 1-10, the rewarded group performed more quickly than the delayed reward group. However, after ten days, the delayed reward group began receiving a reward at the end of the maze. These rats began outperforming the reward group because they had an incentive to do so. This implies that the delayed reward rats were able to memorize the maze (create a cognitive map) without positive reinforcement but did not exhibit the related behavior (quickly finish maze) until incentivized to do so. Tolman realized that the non-rewarded rats had been learning more than they showed and utilized their cognitive maps when appropriately motivated.

In short, Tolman found that in learning about the physical environment and creating cognitive maps, reinforcement was not necessary for learning. However, reinforcement gave an incentive for latent learning to be expressed in the form of behavior.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What does a cognitive map represent?

A cognitive map represents stimuli from the physical environment including features such as landmarks, street names, and left/right directions. A person memorizes these stimuli, often unconsciously, so that areas and routes become familiar and known.

How do you develop a cognitive map?

A cognitive map is often created through latent learning. Latent learning describes learning that is not immediately expressed as behavior and not based on punishment and reinforcement. Rather, the brain stores stimuli from the environment to create a mental image of the physical environment.

How does a cognitive map work?

A cognitive map is often created and used without conscious thought. This is a form of latent learning. When a human or animal is exposed to the same environment multiple times, they begin to create a mental picture based on cues from the environment. Cognitive maps are crucial for navigation and becoming familiar with places.

What is an example of a cognitive map?

A cognitive map is a mental picture or image of the layout of the physical environment. An example of using a cognitive map would be a driver going home from work on a learned path without a GPS.

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