Cognitive Psychology Class Notes > Cognitive Maps


  • representations and processes that allow us to perform tasks involving spatial relations
  • our cognitive maps can vary in size: includes classrooms, apartment lay-outs, neighborhoods, cities, countries, etc.

LAB DEMO: Draw a map of Epcot.

Systematic Distortions in Cognitive Maps


  • tendency to judge our environment as more regular and orderly than it really is
  • tendency to 'clean up' our mental image

Four Areas of Systematic Distortions in Cognitive Maps:

  • Distance estimates
  • Shape
  • Orientation / Relative Positions

Distance Estimates as Systematic Distortions:

3 factors that influence distance estimates in cognitive maps:

1. Number of intervening cities (Thorndyke, 1981)

  • Ss studied maps until they could say where all of the cities were
  • varied distance between 4 base cities (100-400 mi)
  • IV = # of intervening cities (0, 1, 2, or 3)
  • DV = estimate distance between two given cities
  • more intervening cities lead to larger distance estimates

Actual Distance

# Intervening Cities

Estimated Distance

300 mi


280 mi

300 mi


350 mi

2. Road-route distance (McNamara et al., 1984)

  • Ss studied maps until they knew the locations
  • shown city names and had to rapidly decide if that city was on the map (always a different city before a target city)
  • priming -- a nearby city should prime your response

if Solona and Linville are stored as an equal distance from Calford, then they should produce equivalent decision times to Calford

  • Results: Solona produced faster decision times than did Linville


Actual Distance to Calford

Decision Time

Solona --> Calford


faster RT

Linville --> Calford


slower RT

3. Semantic categories (Hirtle & Mascolo, 1986)

  • semantic clustering bias:
    • when two places seem semantically close, we believe they are geographically close
    • tendency to shift landmarks of the same cluster closer together geographically

Shape Estimates as Systematic Distortions

3 factors that influence shape estimates in cognitive maps:

1. Angle estimates (Moar & Bower, 1983)

  • cognitive maps of Cambridge, England
  • experimenters selected intersections where the streets come together at irregular angles
  • task: estimate the angle at which streets come together
  • results: Ss estimated closer to 90 degrees than what the intersections really were

2. Curves and the symmetry heuristic

3. Spatial arrangement

Orientation / Relative Position Estimates as Systematic Distortions:

2 factors that influence distance estimates in cognitive maps:

1. Rotation heuristic

  • tendency remember things as more vertical or horizontal than they really are
  • Which is farther east: San Diego or Reno? --> vertical
  • Which is farther north: Seattle or Montreal? --> horizontal

2. Alignment heuristic

  • tendency to remember things as more lined up than they really are
  • tendency to line up the United States and Europe
  • Which is farther north: Philadelphia or Rome?

Conclusions about Cogntive Maps

  • we store more "regular" representations than what is in the real world
  • this helps us reduce the amount of material stored in memory