Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning Geographical Information from Hypothetical Maps

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Learning Geographical Information from Hypothetical Maps

Article excerpt

People show biases or distortions in their geographical judgments, such as mistakenly judging Rome to be south of Chicago (the Chicago-Rome illusion). These errors may derive from either perceptual heuristics or categorical organization. However, previous work on geographic knowledge has generally examined people's judgments of real-world locations for which learning history is unknown. This article reports experiments on the learning of hypothetical geographical spaces, in which participants acquired information in a fashion designed to control real-world factors, such as variable travel experiences or stereotypes about other countries, as well as to mimic initial encounters with locations through reading or conventional school-based geography education. Five experiments combine to suggest that biases in judgment based on learning of this kind are different in key regards from those seen with real-world geography and may be based more on the use of perceptual heuristics than on categorical organization.

There are several important reasons to study geographical learning. First, knowledge of geographical or larger scale space is important for effective functioning in the modern world. Recent data show that American children and even adults have very little knowledge of world geography, leading to concern that the country is ill-equipped to consider important questions concerning international relations and an increasingly global economy (Liben & Downs, 1994). Second, studying geographical learning offers a real and complex context in which to examine the integration and the interaction of information from many disciplines and knowledge domains. Learning geography requires more than simply encoding the spatial layout of cities and countries. It also involves learning the nature of the environments and climates in which these places are embedded, what natural resources these places possess, and the human aspects of such spatial contexts, such as cultures, political systems, and economic activities (National Geographic Research and Exploration, 1994). Third, in recent years, people working with geographic information systems (GISs) have called for input from cognitive scientists, because understanding of how human minds process geographical information is vital to building and improving the application of GIS technology (Blades, Lippa, Golledge, Jacobson, & Kitchin, 2002; Freundschuh, 2000; Mark, Freksa, Hirtle, Lloyd, & Tversky, 1999). Fourth, geographic learning offers an important real-world context for further investigating the effects of categorization and perceptual processes on spatial estimation (Huttenlocher, Hedges, & Duncan, 1991).

The study of spatial learning dates back to Tolman's (1948) cognitive map research, but research on geographic knowledge has not been common until more recently. Stevens and Coupe (1978) provided the first empirical evidence demonstrating that representations of the environment are hierarchically organized. It is now well known that people misjudge location in ways apparently based on membership in superordinate categories (e.g., placing Reno to the east of San Diego because Nevada is largely east of California). Hirtle and Jonides (1985) extended Steven and Coupe's model to a situation in which the hierarchical categories were ambiguous and ill-defined. The participants in their experiment were University of Michigan students who were asked about landmarks in a map of Ann Arbor. Using a variety of dependent measures, Hirtle and Jonides found that the participants overestimated distances for between-cluster pairs and underestimated them for within-cluster pairs, suggesting that they formed subjective spatial categories even without seeing well-defined boundaries in the space.

Tversky (1981) argued that distortions or biases in the estimation of geographic location occur due to heuristics derived from principles of perceptual organization. For example, in her view, people tend to misjudge South America to be far more west than it actually is because they "align" North America and South America into a simple unit along a longitudinal axis. …

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