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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Historical Background
  • Metatheory of Behavioral Geography
  • Spatial Behavior, Activity Spaces, and Time Geography
  • Navigation and Wayfinding
  • Using and Comprehending Maps and Imagery
  • Spatial/Geographic Language
  • Individual, Sex, and Cultural Differences

Geography Behavioral Geography
Daniel R. Montello
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • 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. 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 led 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. Behavioral 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 geography has inherent interdisciplinary connections, particularly with various subfields of psychology, but also with other behavioral and cognitive disciplines, such as linguistics, anthropology, economics, and artificial intelligence, and environmental disciplines, such as planning, architecture, and urban 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 geography may be found in edited books with chapters by different authors or sets of 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 (few departments specialize in it, for example). The most important and informative edited collections include Downs and Stea 1973 and Gärling and Golledge 1993. There are some valuable books authored by single sets of authors, including Golledge and Stimson 1997, the most authoritative general book on behavioral geography, with the most breadth of coverage; it is the much-expanded second edition of an earlier version by these two authors. Jakle, et al. 1985 is another relevant example. Walmsley and Lewis 1993 is better suited as a textbook for introductory courses. Finally, some journal articles are useful overviews of at least important parts of behavioral geography. Evans 1980, published in a prominent journal of psychology, is perhaps the best example of this.

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

    Edited collection that is not only very important historically to behavioral 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. Probably no other single reference in all of behavioral geography is more important.

  • Evans, Gary W. “Environmental Cognition.” Psychological Bulletin 88.2 (1980): 259–287.

    DOI: 10.1037/0033-2909.88.2.259

    Article from a top journal of research psychology that overviews a major part of behavioral geography—environmental cognition—from the multidisciplinary perspective of environmental psychology, the subfield of psychology most closely parallel to behavioral geography.

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

    Edited collection of great value because it consists of review chapters covering much of the breadth of behavioral 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 geography found in one source. Does one of the best jobs of connecting the behavioral 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 concepts and idea. Covers mental, behavioral, social, and cultural use of space by individuals and groups.

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

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

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