Cognitive mapping is the task of mapping a person's thinking about a issue and then refers to the use of maps to depict and explore the cognitive structures of members of organizations who are facing complex problems.

Cognitive maps are typically represented as short pieces of text (nodes or concepts) linked with unidirectional arrows. They are characterized by an hierarchical structure in the form of a means/ends graph with "goal" statements (expressions of desired or not desired outcomes) at the top and solution alternatives at the bottom. The direction of an arrow/link implies believed causality (for which cognitive maps are sometimes also known as "causal maps", particularly when constructed by a group of people). Group maps are often developed by merging several cognitive maps derived from each member of a problem-solving team.

Cognitive maps are usually derived through structured interviews, and so they are intended to represent the subjective world of the interviewee(s). In this context, these maps are not just a graphic representation of what is said, rather they are interpretations of what is meant by the interviewee.

Construction of cognitive maps is based on a formal modelling process which focus on problem solving. This focus makes makes it appropriate for problem structuring and for uncovering solution alternatives.

Analyses of the structure of cognitive maps are conducted with the help of a software (computer assisted analysis), since real world maps are typically comprised of (at least) 100 nodes/concepts. The analysis aims to provide a compendium of emergent properties, which give insights into ways of managing the issue or problem.

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