In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Behavioral and Cognitive Geography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Philosophy of Behavioral and Cognitive Geography
  • Spatial Behavior, Activity Spaces, and Time Geography
  • Navigation and Wayfinding
  • Individual, Sex, and Cultural Differences

Geography Behavioral and Cognitive Geography
Daniel R. Montello
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0069


Behavioral geography is an approach to human geography that attempts to understand human activity in space, place, and environment by studying it at the disaggregate level of analysis—at the level of the individual person. Behavioral geographers analyze data on the behavior of individual people, recognizing that individuals vary from each other. A key tenet of behavioral geography holds that models of human activity and interaction can be improved by incorporating more realistic assumptions about human behavior. For example, behavioral geographers agree with other human geographers that distance (or related factors such as travel time or effort) is an important determinant of human activity, but they maintain that it is subjective rather than objective distance that is typically important. It’s not how far away the store is that matters, it’s how far away you think it is. And because different people’s beliefs about distances may vary considerably from one another and from objective distance, spatial activities will be more variable and less optimal than nonbehavioral models predict. Thus, the disaggregate study of human geography naturally leads behavioral researchers to consider what the individual knows or believes about the world as playing an important role in explaining what the individual does or will do—that is, people do what they do because of what they think is true. People evaluate decision alternatives according to their beliefs in order to make behavioral choices in space and place. What people think, in turn, arises from perceptual knowledge acquired via the senses, as organized and interpreted by existing beliefs and schematic knowledge structures and processes. These, in turn, are products of people’s genetic and experiential histories and are often mediated by symbolic representations, such as maps and language. To recognize how prominent the study of human mind has become in behavioral geography, as well as in many other science and humanities disciplines, I explicitly refer to this subarea as behavioral and cognitive geography. Behavioral and cognitive geography further maintains that human-environment relations are dynamic and bidirectional: The actions and mental states of individuals cause, and are caused by, physical and social environments, within the context of ongoing and changing interactions. Because of these various interests and beliefs, behavioral and cognitive geography has inherent interdisciplinary connections, particularly with various subfields of psychology, but also with other behavioral and cognitive disciplines, such as linguistics, anthropology, economics, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence, and environmental disciplines, such as planning, architecture, urban studies, and environmental studies. Given this fundamental interdisciplinarity, much of the literature cited here has been published not only within geography and cartography, but also within psychology, linguistics, computer science, and other fields.

General Overviews

More than some other fields of geography, the best overviews of behavioral and cognitive geography may be found in edited books with chapters by different authors. This reflects the relative newness of the subfield, its extremely multidisciplinary nature, and its wide relevance to so many disparate problem areas within geography and cartography. At the same time, it has attracted relatively few scholars within geography (few departments specialize in it, for example). The most important and informative early edited collections include Downs and Stea 1973 and Gärling and Golledge 1993. Golledge and Stimson 1997 constitutes the most authoritative and broad general book on behavioral and cognitive geography to that point in time; it is the much-expanded second edition of an earlier version by the authors. Jakle, et al. 1985 and Denis 2018 are additional relevant authored books. Walmsley and Lewis 1993 is better suited as a textbook for introductory courses. Amedeo joined Golledge in Amedeo and Golledge 2003 to provide Golledge’s final written assessment of the behavioral approach generally. Finally, Montello 2018 is the most recent authoritative general book on behavioral and cognitive geography, with great coverage breadth again, but of even greater multidisciplinarity than earlier works.

  • Amedeo, Douglas M., and Reginald G. Golledge. “Environmental Perception and Behavioral Geography.” In Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century. Edited by Gary L. Gaile and Cort J. Willmott, 133–148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    Statement of the core ideas, methods, and context of the traditional historical core of the behavioral and cognitive approach as it emerged over the years, from the views of the “Environmental Perception and Behavioral Geography” specialty group of the AAG (Association of American Geographers, labeled the American Association of Geographers since 2016). Authored by two of its long-time leaders, the chapter highlights the philosophical tensions historically found within this approach between what has been labeled “positivist” and “post-positivist” perspectives on human activity and experience in space and place, basically a contrast between scientific and humanist perspectives such as phenomenology (see also Philosophy of Behavioral and Cognitive Geography).

  • Denis, Michel. Space and Spatial Cognition: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. London: Routledge, 2018.

    Contemporary book authored by a leading researcher on spatial cognition from a behavioral and linguistic perspective, nicely combining perspectives from most of the disciplines involved in behavioral and cognitive geography research and technologies, even though written by a single author.

  • Downs, Roger M., and David Stea, eds. Image & Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior. Chicago: Aldine, 1973.

    Edited collection that is not only very important historically to behavioral and cognitive geography, but that contains several chapters that are among the most influential sources on their particular topics. Includes chapters by prominent geographers, psychologists, and others. Perhaps no other single reference in all of behavioral and cognitive geography is more important in its impact on the development of this subfield.

  • Gärling, Tommy, and Reginald G. Golledge, eds. Behavior and Environment: Psychological and Geographical Approaches. Amsterdam: North-Holland, 1993.

    Edited collection of value because it consists of review chapters covering much of the breadth of behavioral and cognitive geography, written by top scholars. Uniquely contrasts the perspectives of geography and psychology on each major topic it covers.

  • Golledge, Reginald G., and Robert J. Stimson. Spatial Behavior: A Geographic Perspective. New York: Guilford, 1997.

    Probably the broadest treatment of behavioral and cognitive geography by a single set of authors found in one source. Does a very good job of connecting the behavioral and cognitive approach to the general field of human geography. More appropriate for graduate courses than undergraduate.

  • Jakle, John A., Stanley Brunn, and Curtis C. Roseman. Human Spatial Behavior: A Social Geography. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland, 1985.

    An interesting early overview of scientific human geography that is essentially a balanced and broad presentation of behavioral and cognitive concepts and idea. Covers mental, behavioral, social, and cultural uses of space by individuals and groups.

  • Montello, Daniel R., ed. Handbook of Behavioral and Cognitive Geography. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2018.

    Contemporary edited collection that reviews behavioral and cognitive geography broadly and comprehensively, with chapters by many of the leading researchers and scholars from several disciplines. Includes chapters reviewing the state-of-the-art in nearly every topical area within behavioral and cognitive geography, including sets of chapters on spatial behavior and decision making, environmental spatial cognition, cognitive aspects of geographic information, individual and group differences, and environmental attitudes. Opens with introductory chapters extensively reviewing the approach and discussing its academic history and concludes with an entertaining chapter that considers the future of behavioral and cognitive geography.

  • Walmsley, D. J., and G. J. Lewis. People and Environment: Behavioural Approaches in Human Geography. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley, 1993.

    Rare example of something like an adequate undergraduate text in behavioral and cognitive geography. Like Golledge and Stimson 1997, it provides a broad coverage that connects the behavioral and cognitive approach to the rest of human geography, but more concisely and at a more basic level.

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