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Diagramming for development 2: exploring interrelationships
Diagramming for development 2: exploring interrelationships

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3.5 Cognitive map


A cognitive map indicates the nature of the beliefs held about a problem. Although primarily used to capture individual patterns of reasoning, cognitive mapping can also be used in groups as a means of sharing understandings of a situation.


Cognitive mapping provides a visual language for setting down thoughts about a problem situation as an ordered network of understandings in order to enable improved decision making. It was originally devised by Colin Eden and colleagues in 1983.

There are several practical situations in which cognitive mapping can be useful:

  • for structuring, analysing and making sense of verbal or documented accounts of problems
  • as an interviewing device for (1) structuring an agenda for an interview, (2) as a note-taking method during the course of an interview, thereby acting as a prompt for further questions, and/or (3) interpreting transcripts of interviews in a way that promotes analysis, questioning and understanding of the data
  • facilitating group discussions by enabling individual members to see their lines of reasoning in the context of others, thereby improving mutual understandings and the search for possible alternative options
  • supporting decision-makers in making explicit subconscious values and possible consequences associated with particular decisions.

Diagram components

Figure 6 Format of a cognitive map
Figure 6 Format of a cognitive map
  • Title: describing the core 'problem situation' being explored.
  • Bipolar constructs. These are phrases which represent an action item on one pole and a contrasting action item on the other. The two poles of a construct are separated by three dots (which mean 'rather than'). The diagram conventions and guidelines give some examples.
  • Hierarchical template (optional though recommended) dividing the network of constructs between three levels of decision making (from top to bottom): (1) general ideals or 'goals'  (2) 'strategic directions' , and (3) more specific 'potential options'.
  • Arrows between different phrases. All the arrows generally follow upwards hence contributing to a map with action items being linked from 'potential options' towards higher level 'goals'. The head of each arrow ought to point directly to the three dots in the bipolar construct if possible.
  • Plus or minus signs on the arrows. These indicate the nature of the link between constructs. A plus (+) sign indicates that the first pole of the 'tail' construct leads to the first pole of the 'head' construct (and similarly for the second poles); a minus (−) sign indicates that the reverse is the case, and that the first pole of the 'tail' construct leads to the second pole of the 'head' construct (and vice versa). Where there are no signs present, you can assume that all the links are positive.

Diagram conventions

A cognitive map is made up of bipolar phrases and arrows. The main steps are:

  1. Define the core problem situation in terms of a title for the map.
  2. Translate the problem situation in terms of an action item. If you are interpreting a text describing a problem situation in order to understand the reasoning of the author or main players in the situation being described, you might find it useful to first list down as many action items as you can think of which are associated with the text.
  3. Devise the first pole of your first bipolar construct. For example, if the problem situation is centred on issues of unco-ordinated governance, you might simply write this down as 'improve integration of governance structures'. For the second pole, simply write down the contrasting item to the first pole; an alternative thought on the subject, for example 'do not improve integration of governance structures'. Both poles of the construct are separated by three dots (which mean 'rather than'). This is the seed construct from which your cognitive map will grow.
  4. Ask yourself what you believe this situation (or its contrast) will lead to. This activity is a type of 'forecasting' exercise. If you are interpreting someone's text or transcript, review the imperatives originally listed and choose those which would follow more as a direct consequence from original construct. There may be a number of implications which you should set down separately as consequential constructs using the bipolar notation described above.
  5. Draw an arrow between the 'tail' construct (that is, the original bipolar construct) and each of the new 'head' (consequential) constructs, ensuring that the arrow head points near to the three dots within the construct. The arrows between the phrases thus closely resemble the function of arrows on a multiple cause diagram.
  6. Ask the same question about the next level of consequences for each of the implications identified, and follow any chains of argument as far as you feel you are able, continuing to use the same notation.
  7. Return to the initial seed construct and ask yourself about its antecedents; what action item(s) is (are) required in order to bring about this original action? This activity represents a type of 'backcasting' exercise. Again, continue along this downward path of reasoning until you have a set of constructs providing more precisely defined 'potential options'.
  8. Some cognitive maps have arrows with signs attached to them. These indicate the nature of the link between the tail and head constructs. A plus (+) sign indicates that the first pole of the 'tail' construct leads to the first pole of 'head' construct (and similarly the second pole of the 'tail' leads to the second pole of the 'head'). Most diagrams are drawn so that all the constructs are linked in this way. In such cases there is no need to attach a sign to the arrow. In some diagrams you may find minus (-) signs on some arrows. This indicates a reversal in that the first pole of the 'tail' construct leads to the second pole of 'head' construct (and similarly the second pole of the 'tail' leads to the first pole of the 'head').

Activity 7 Animated tutorial 3

Watch the animated tutorial (click on ‘View’) below this paragraph. The tutorial will build a cognitive map to show the various factors affecting decision making associated with the WWP. Click on the arrows to flip the pages.

This element is no longer supported and cannot be used.

Click on WWP cognitive map [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] to see the description of the animated tutorial.