Behavioral maps

Behavioral mapping is a type of systematic observation research that tracks behavior over space and time. The tracking may focus on a particular place or be based on an individual's movements. We term these two techniques place-centered and person or individual-centered mapping.

One could create a playground map and track usage of the various features such as that shown above. More ....

Place-centered maps

A place-centered map documents behavior of all individuals within a specified place and time. For example, mapping auto or pedestrian traffic in a downtown area, or plotting the location of students in the library or on a campus plaza. A place-centered map can reveal how or when a particular space is being used, or not used.

Time considerations

Some of the more interesting information may arise when nothing is supposed to be happening. A researcher was mapping the use of outdoor play areas in a San Francisco apartment complex. She had decided to end the behavior mapping at 8 P.M., assuming that the children would be indoors by then. Later observation revealed a heavier use of the play area at 10 P.M. by teenagers than in the mid afternoon by children. If the researcher had selected a different time frame for the study, her results would have differed significantly.(1)

Individual-centered maps

Person or individual-centered maps involve tracking the individual's movement over time and space. This requires following the person (or animal), either visually or with a camera.

The map on the right was used by a New York City research firm that helps organizations and companies improve the efficiency of their customer service. Trackers followed shoppers and noted their shopping-related behaviors. See tracking instructions.

The technique has been used in research on animals by attaching a transmitter to the creature and recording patterns of movement.

Larson and colleagues attached radio signal transmitters to shopping carts in a supermarket in order to track customers. They found that contrary to marketing beliefs, shoppers do not weave up and down all aisles in a systematic pattern. Instead, they tended to travel the perimeter, taking short excursions in and out of aisles.(2)

Although superficial tracking may be done without an individual's knowledge, in most cases, in-depth person-centered mapping requires the cooperation of the individual being studied. People may detect that they are being tracked, especially over time.

What is recorded?

Behavioral mapping relies on characteristics that are readily observable, such as approximate age, sex, whether the individual is alone or in a group, and what he or she is doing. The record can be constructed using time-lapse photography, video, or with prepared diagrams on which an observer records individual's locations.

Whether collecting information directly or interpreting data from photographs or video, observers must be trained to record behavior in a systematic and reliable manner. This will require training, practice, feedback, more practice, and more feedback.

Testing for the reliability of the categories is essential. Some researchers use 90 percent agreement between observers in each category as a criterion. Observed behaviors that do not meet this criterion may be dropped from the data analysis.

Next section: Cognitive maps

(1) Marcus, C. C. (1990). From the pragmatic to the spiritual. In I. Altman & K. Christensen (Eds.), Environment and behavior studies: Emergence of intellectual traditions (pp. 111-40). New York: Plenum Press.
(2) Larson, J. S., Bradlow, E., & Fader, P. (2005). An exploratory look at supermarket shopping paths. International Journal of Research in Marketing, 22(4), 395-414.