Behavioral Geography

Defining terms is an unusually important activity in the case of behavioural geography, since it has two historically contingent meanings. The first views it sensu lato as a movement with multidisciplinary leanings that enjoyed its greatest influence between the years 1965 and 1980. Broadly coterminous with what others variously referred to as ‘environmental perception’, ‘behavioral and perceptual geography’ or ‘image geography’, behavioral geography emphasized the role of cognitive processes in shaping decision making and behavior, for which reason its underlying approach was known as ‘cognitive behavioralism’. In essence, its proponents argued that people’s spatial behavior depended on how they understood (perceived, cognized) the world around them, but researchers varied markedly in how they conceived and tackled their subject matter. Some embraced ‘cognitive science’, examining regularities in human spatial cognition and behavior and using their findings as a basis from which to generate theories about how people make decisions and act in geographic space. Others looked to ‘humanistic’ approaches. Critical of what they saw as the reductionist tendencies stemming from scientific inquiry in general and mainstream psychology in particular, they more often sought to understand human imagination and experience holistically than wishing to make overt connections with behavior.

The second and more contemporary meaning of behavioral geography defines it sensu stricto as a subdiscipline of human geography. To some extent, this definition arose by default. Tensions between behavioral geography’s ‘cognitive science’ and ‘humanistic’ streams eventually led to these two schools of thought parting company by the early 1980s. Henceforth, the term ‘behavioral geography’ described the work of those previously associated with the ‘cognitive science’ wing and was largely confined to North America, where it maintained an accepted but increasingly marginal presence in geographical research and in the undergraduate teaching curriculum.

At first glance the existence of these two overlapping definitions would seem of little real consequence, but the failure to differentiate between them lies at the heart of the prevailing historiographic misrepresentations of behavioral geography. By the 1990s at least, the prevailing view was, first, that behavioral geography was primarily a limited extension of spatial science and, second, that the limitations of its underlying positivist philosophy led to it being challenged and replaced by alternative approaches. By failing to recognize its true scope as a broad movement that provided a home for nonpositivist as well as positivist approaches during the 1960s and 1970s, it becomes difficult to recognize behavioral geography’s contribution as a forum that once nurtured what was later termed ‘humanistic geography’ and, indeed, indirectly helped to lay the foundations of the ‘new cultural geography’.

This article, which is arranged chronologically, starts by looking at behavioral geography sensu lato. After examining its precursors, the early sections analyze its principal conceptual frameworks, before dealing thematically with three foci for cognitive behavioralist research in geography, namely: cognitive (mental) mapping, natural hazards, and attachment to place. The ensuing section notes the emergence of powerful bodies of criticism from radical and humanistic geographers, which progressively eroded the uneasy coexistence between positivist and nonpositivist approaches. The penultimate section of this article notes the continuing existence of behavioral geography sensu stricto, but points to its increasing peripherality and remnant status. The conclusion considers the limited prospects for revitalization of behavioral geography per se, despite the continuing relevance of some of its central tenets.

Early Development


Cognitive Maps

Natural Hazards

Attachment to Place


Continuity and Marginality