Collective Spatial Cognition

Innovative Research about Spatial Thinking by Human Groups


The Laboratory for Location Science in partnership with the University of California - Santa Barbara is engaged in an effort to accelerate research advances in collective spatial cognition. We seek to engage an international and multi-disciplinary community of scholars, who can collaborate to provide a foundation for knowledge discovery regarding how groups of people learn about space, and act on the spatial knowledge they collectively gain. Please review the Call for Participation, Meeting Details, and Abstract tabs for more information.


Topic keywords:

  • Geographic information
  • Group decision-making
  • Human-computer interaction (HCI) for spatial awareness
  • Individual differences
  • Modeling and measurement of team spatial cognition/behavior
  • Multi-team systems
  • Simulation/virtual reality for modeling team spatial cognition/behavior
  • Social influence
  • Spatial abilities
  • Spatial behavior
  • Spatial language/communication
  • Spatial learning
  • Spatial thinking/reasoning
  • Technical advances in team spatial cognition

This research activity is sponsored by the U.S. Army Research Institute for the Behavioral and Social Sciences (ARI) and is being accomplished under Grant Number W911NF-18-1-0273. The views, opinions, and/or findings contained in this website are those of the authors and shall not be construed as an official Department of the Army position, policy, or decision, unless so designated by other documents.

The Laboratory for Location Science at the University of Alabama, in partnership with the University of California-Santa Barbara, is organizing a working group of international scholars to participate in a research symposium on spatial cognition in human collectives. The ultimate goal of this research effort is to define and outline the field of collective spatial cognition, as a foundation for further research. We approach this research topic from multiple disciplinary perspectives in the spatial sciences, social and behavioral sciences, cognitive sciences, and information sciences. By collective spatial cognition, we refer to a wide range of phenomena in which people solve spatial problems in human collectives, from dyads to multi-team systems to crowds. Spatial problems include a broad array of activities, including navigation and wayfinding, spatial knowledge acquisition, location allocation and planning, design, and spatial communication.

We and our Steering Committee will evaluate and accept abstracts related to any of the topics or topic keywords listed below. We have proposed four “Challenge Problems” to inspire and/or frame potential submissions, included below. We solicit abstracts that present either theoretical or empirical investigations of how human collectives learn, communicate, perceive, decide, and act on spatial problems. Abstracts that do not explicitly address one or more of the four Challenge Problems but that are still of interest to researchers studying collective spatial cognition will also be considered. We would be interested in research ideas that span scales (geographic and team size), or that investigate different environments (e.g. urban, rural, wilderness, above ground or underground). There is particular interest in novel, cross-disciplinary approaches.

Thank you to our participants who have submitted abstracts to date. Project participants met for a productive symposium held in Santa Barbara, CA April 17-19. Please see subsequent tabs for meeting notes and list of project participants and topics.

We will continue to build our research group with additional submissions. Abstracts of up to 1,000 words will be reviewed on an ad hoc basis. Please send abstracts to Authors of accepted abstracts will be invited to submit a position paper. A subset of project participants will also be asked to contribute full chapters of up to 8,000 words for inclusion in an edited volume on Collective Spatial Cognition.


Kevin M. Curtin, PhD
Laboratory for Location Science
University of Alabama

Daniel R. Montello, PhD

University of California - Santa Barbara

Challenge Problems

A trio of tourists want to explore a foreign city on foot within an eight-hour time constraint. They are unfamiliar with both the physical and human environment. The tourists assign different individual values to different kinds of experiences (e.g., arts, cuisine, history, scenic views) and potentially have multiple wayfinding aids at their disposal (e.g., guide books, paper maps, digital maps, GPS, interactions with locals). How does the trio rationalize their trip? What strategies, ontologies, and communication processes inform their shared spatial awareness of the points of interest, routes, and urban area? What is the quality of spatial knowledge acquired at both the individual and team levels, what interactions determine that quality, and how do they spatially behave given what they have learned? In what ways do individual differences (such as spatial ability, verbal communication styles, leadership, task familiarity, gender) matter at the team level? What role does entitativity (i.e., the perception of a group as a pure entity) play in the spatial behaviors of the group as well as the responses of the local population to their tour?
An Army platoon of roughly 40 soldiers is part of a larger task force that is newly deployed to a foreign country emerging from years of civil war. Their mission is to help provide stability and security as well as to assist the host nation to implement and monitor the cease-fire agreement. The platoon is moving through an unfamiliar and densely urbanized section of a very large city that has sustained severe infrastructure damage after years of war. While they expected that their maps and overhead imagery would not accurately depict the passable routes through the city, they quickly realize that these wayfinding aids are nearly useless because the city is a maze of dead ends, narrow passages, and improvised routes created by rubble. The platoon fans out to collectively find the best way through the city, working together to test paths, report obstacles, and understand the urban landscape together. Along the way, they must be wary of hostile threats including snipers and homemade bombs. Unexpectedly, their headquarters calls them and directs them to immediately move in a new direction where a hostile attack is in progress. During both the sweep and urgent response phases of this operation, how should the platoon’s leader assign movement objectives to his subordinates while considering differences in their human composition? How does the leader perceive risk and progress towards the objective in terms of distance, dispersion, speed, and other spatial considerations? How does the leader receive, perceive, process, and respond to the spatial representations communicated by the members of the platoon? How do the subordinate teams and squads adapt their movement behaviors cooperatively — in concert with the directions of the leader — to ensure rapid and safe transit? What cognitive assistance could enhance the unit’s wayfinding performance in this context?
Multiple teams of first responders respond to a fire emergency in a densely developed and densely populated urban area. The teams are comprised of generalists (e.g., firefighters, police officers) as well as specialists (e.g., ladder rescue, pumpers, communications technicians, search and rescue officers, medical technicians, equipment specialists, chiefs/leaders) who need to work together, within and across teams, to search a high-rise office building for several trapped individuals. Simultaneously they must track and extinguish a large fire spreading rapidly and unpredictably in three dimensions. How does this system of teams spatially rationalize their mission while mitigating the risk of injury and loss of life? How do variables such as leadership, training, and cohesion influence shared awareness of this spatially dynamic situation? How do the dynamics of the situation (e.g. fire spread, partial collapse) change the spatial behavior? How do spatial and communication technologies affect outcomes? How could the overall response be enhanced through improvements in shared spatial thinking? How and why does the spatial thinking and behavior of the local population influence the response to the emergency?
An international, ad hoc group of government, nongovernmental, humanitarian, and commercial organizations comes together in the aftermath of a regional natural disaster—a massively destructive earthquake—to coordinate and execute response and relief efforts. The earthquake has affected a subcontinental geographic region comprised of four neighboring countries with distinct differences in geographical, cultural, and infrastructural attributes. The responding organizations range widely in capacity (e.g., small civic organizations vs. military forces and major international charities) and specialty (e.g., planning, communication, urban search and rescue, disease prevention, relief logistics). Personnel endure significant cognitive strain, pressure to perform, and in some cases, physical or cognitive impairment. How does the widely-variegated system of teams perceive, communicate, and make decisions about tasks relative to terrain? Do concepts of team spatial cognition scale up homologously from teams of individuals (n) at the micro scale (n < 10) to the meso scale (10 < n < 1,000) to large systems of different types of teams (n > 1,000)? How do systems of teams think about space, terrain, and geography as the area of concern grows in size (local area–> national territory–> subcontinental region) and complexity (i.e. a variously developed composite of rural, urban, mountainous, littoral, wetland, and forested land)? How is the changing nature of the response (search and rescue, recovery, stability, redevelopment) informed by the spatial knowledge obtained? What diversity of spatial cognitive phenomena is evident in the differences or similarities of the perceptions, communications, and actions of the various teams engaged in the relief effort? How does the population of victims react spatially to the activities and decisions of the relief effort?

The Collective Spatial Cognition Specialist Meeting took place in Santa Barbara on April 17 through the 19th, 2019. CSC Participants may see the shared folder on UA Box for position papers, presentation files, and recorded audio of the meeting. If you are having trouble accessing UA Box, please reach out to


First Author Title
Andrews, Jessica Adverse Consequences of Collaboration on Spatial Problem Solving
Barker, Andrew G. Contextualizing the social dimensions of wayfinding
Barisic, Iva Social Wayfinding in complex environments
Baumann, Michael R. A Review of Multi-team Systems with an Eye Toward Applications for Collective Spatial Reasoning
Boone, Alexander What happens when navigation strategies are not aligned?
Buck, Lauren Acquisition of Spatial Knowledge by Dyads in Shared Immersive Virtual Environments
Chamberlain, Brent Assessing Collective Spatial Situational Awareness in Real-Time sing Virtual Environments
Cheng, You (Lilian) From individual cognitive maps to a collective cognitive map: Thoughts about a trio of tourists exploring in a foreign city
Chrastil, Elizabeth Central coordination and integration of diverse information to form a single map
Cova, Thomas Wildfire protective-action warnings: collective spatial decision making?
Dalton, Ruth Are People Attractive?
Esposito, Dario Agent-based modelling and simulation of the impact of spatial cognition on the hand hygiene behavior in hospital wards
Giannopoulos, Ioannis Gaze-Based Assistance for Collective Spatial Cognition
Gunalp, Peri Perspective Taking in Group Spatial Cognition
He, Chuanxiuyue (Carol) From Individual Differences to Collective Navigation
Heyns, Andries Collective spatial cognition during dynamic tactical inter-agency collaboration in response to displaced population crises
Hinsz, Verlin The Combination of Contributions and Processing of Information in Groups Helps Them Find Their Way
Hirtle, Stephen C. Wisdom versus Ignorance of the Crowds for Collective Spatial Cognition
Ishikawa, Toru Abstract for Spatial Cognition (Title needed)
Khooshabehadeh, Peter Influence of Virtual Humans on Wayfinding Decisions
Lemasson, Betrand Identifying the Influences of Visual Perception and Design of the Built Environment on Crowd Dynamics during Emergency Situations
Maupin, Cynthia Distributed Spatial Cognition: Accounting for Space with Transactive Skill Systems
Pangiotis, Mavros Collaborative Wayfinding with Incomplete and Distributed Spatial Information
Rice, Matt The Influence of the Collective on Spatial Data Collection and Use
Taylor, Holly Shared Mental Models for Shared Spatial Decision Making
Thrash, Tyler Geographic Information Displays for Collective Spatial Cognition