By Reginald Golledge

This article was originally published at Directions Magazine on March 21, 2001.

There are two “geographies” of everyday life. One represents the “incidental” (or “naïve”) geographic knowledge that we acquire as we pursue our episodic activities. The other is “intentional” and is the geographic knowledge we accumulate after we have been taught how to think and reason geographically and after we begin to apply that knowledge (consciously and unconsciously) as we interact with people and places.

So geographic knowledge has both an “incidental” or “naïve” knowledge base (Mark, et al., 1997) and an “intentionally” accumulated (“taught,” “learned,” or “expert”) knowledge base. Incidental knowledge dominates in most of our everyday decision-making and thought processes. And a good deal of that knowledge is acquired using general guidelines that produce fuzzy or error-prone knowledge.

There is a remarkable difference between the incidental geographic knowledge that we acquire by personally experiencing places during activities dominated by other purposes (e.g., “experiencing” an urban environment during a work or shopping trip) and the deliberately structured intentional geographic knowledge that we acquire by teaching and learning processes (e.g., the Geography for Life curriculum [Geography Education Standards Project, 1994]). As geographers, we are amazed at the appalling geographic ignorance of those whose knowledge repertoire is dominated by the incidental. Such people often cannot name the major continents and may not be able to identify the USA on a map or globe (Earhardt, 1998). Geographic knowledge levels change dramatically when intentional knowledge is gained-particularly when people are taught to observe fundamental geographic principles like location, place, connectivity, spatial interaction, spatial distribution, pattern, hierarchy, distance, direction, orientation, reference frame, geographic association, scale, region, and geographic representation (as have been incorporated into the Geography Standards-Geography for Life Curriculum). This simply implies that geography-like other disciplines-has a language and knowledge base that is not casually accessible or easily (naively) accumulated. Rather, it is a concept rich and structured body of knowledge that is based on specific modes of thinking and reasoning that usually have to be taught. This is especially true of geographic knowledge today.

To more completely understand the nature of geographic knowledge, we must be aware of differences in the levels of spatial abilities among people. But, even more fundamentally, we must be aware of the very nature of the spatial abilities that accommodate the acquisition of geographic knowledge. An ongoing initiative sponsored by the Committee on Geography and the National Research Council on “Spatial Thinking” (headed by geographer Roger Downs) is focusing on this precise problem.

Casually observing environments without a repertoire of spatial concepts, theories, and generalizations produces this low level incidental “knowledge.” Inadequacies in this knowledge base result from insensitivity to sample size of our experiences (generalizing from n=1), misconceptions of the nature of chance events, illusions of validity (e.g., “my experience is typical”), and personal aggrandizement (“I wasn’t included in the sample so it’s not representative!”). Unfortunately for many people (particularly in countries like the USA where geography is not an essential and integrated part of general education in K-16 environments), this incidentally acquired geographic knowledge is their main source for understanding the world.

Incidental geographic knowledge suffers from a variety of perceptual and cognitive distortions. For example, generally we overestimate shorter distances and underestimate longer ones, thus creating errors in where we think things are or how far they are away; we often perceive distances to be asymmetric, thus believing that the distance “to” a place is longer/shorter than the distance “from” a place, and consequently we take different routes “to” and “from” rather than simply reversing the “to” route. Cognitive and behavioral geographers have a long list of these “biases” in our beliefs about the world. (At the end of this piece there will be a few questions that should reveal uncertainties in some of your beliefs-answer them without  consulting a map or globe!)

When we have been formally exposed to geographic concepts, models, and theories (i.e., we have intentionally learned about geographic thinking and reasoning), spatial arrangements, spatial layouts, and patterns of phenomena “reveal” themselves in a way that often is denied to the casual observer. Spatial hierarchies are common in our environments, but the incidental learner often does not realize they are there-e.g., the educational hierarchy of pre-schools, kindergartens, elementary schools, junior high, high school, two year community college, four year college with no Ph.D. programs, and full scale universities with graduate programs. This is a “nested” spatial hierarchy; lower order elements require fewer people (or a “lower population threshold”) to support them and are scattered throughout neighborhoods. Elementary and junior highs are “nested” in the community catchment areas of high schools and so on. Consequently there are many pre-schools and kindergartens and fewer and fewer higher order schools as we go up the hierarchy, and the higher order schools are more carefully located to serve their catchment areas. The same principles underlie other service activities such as fire stations, police stations, branch banks, shopping centers, and so on. Once the spatial order is revealed, the level of understanding of why you perform activities at some places and in some areas rather than others reveals itself, and, congratulations, you are on your way to geographic awareness!

Now let me turn to an illustration of how geographers are contributing to increasing your geographic awareness. Imagine a world without signs! Almost impossible to do that, right? No street names or numbers, no store identification, no bus stop indicators or destination titles on buses! Geographers and cartographers throughout history have tried to make everyday life simpler by giving signs place-specificity. Your street number, your post code or zip code, latitude and longitude, streets identified by North, South, East, or West components, gazetteers of urban place names, and so on. These devices provide locational information in absolute (e.g., coordinate) or relative (e.g., “near the church”) format. And today’s Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are now becoming friendlier-after all, who except a professional really cares what the latitude-longitude coordinates of your house are? They are doing this by helping companies to develop location-specific information systems.

One example is Talking Signs® Inc. Talking Signs® is an environmental labeling system that allows people to identify locations, signs, landmarks, intersections, and other facilities by use of short infrared transmitted speech messages that are accessed by a small handheld receiver that translates the message from light to speech. Controlling the location and angle of the light-emitting diodes in the locationally fixed transmitters allows control over the distance the label message is transmitted and allows the recipient to orient on the directional beam and to follow it to its locational source. But that was only phase I. Phase II is the production of the Talking Signs® Geospatial Communications System. Of major use for blind travelers, this also helps tourists or non-speakers or readers of local languages to find what’s there and to navigate in strange environments. Sometimes called “Remote Infrared Auditory Signage” (RIAS), its use is becoming widespread in San Francisco and other cities in the USA, Europe, and Japan in particular. Its success has encouraged the US Government to redefine the term “sign” to include spoken as well as visual labels. Geographers have worked extensively with Talking Signs® Inc. to test and evaluate these systems (for more information see

As a second example, consider the awkwardness and complexity of coordinate referencing systems. These are fine for computer searches, or map interpretation exercises, or guiding missiles to targets. But does the person on the street use them in everyday life? Usually they don’t. GO-2 Systems, a Newport Beach, CA based firm, has worked with geographers to offer a grid-based referencing system as an alternative. Using a hierarchical grid system that for everyday purposes could be truncated at, say, a ten meter grid size, GO-2 uses alphanumeric mnemonics to identify places. The mnemonics give places an everyday meaning well beyond that provided by a coordinate system. For example, US.CA.LA.SM might be used to locate Santa Monica within a nation, state, and city framework generally, and then use additional, more accurate labeling to give a specific location for, say, a Chinese restaurant. The day when we can query a database on a wearable computer and find the location of the nearest tire store after getting a flat is here and now. Location-specificity: that’s the geographic game in this information rich society. And we play the game well! (For more information on GO-2 Systems, see

So geography is playing a larger and larger part in the drama of everyday life. It is no longer just the “rivers, mountains, and capital cities” knowledge structure of 500 years ago, nor is it just the subject matter of TV quiz shows. Although we continue to explore satellite imagery to get even more detail of “what is there,” that goal as an object of geographic research and education, while basic, is much less important than it used to be. We quiver with indignation when David Letterman makes the perennial statement, “we know where everything is-why do we need geography?” For at least fifty years, we have been explaining WHY things are where they are and HOW things are ordered and arranged in the everyday world in terms of their spatial arrangements, not just what is where. And most people don’t even know that-or can’t read a map or globe to find out! I’ll bet Letterman would have miserably failed my Geographic Skills and Awareness Test. And, speaking of that, the following data give a brief summary of your responses.

Geographic Skills Scale

  • *Average male score (n=61) 32.87
  • *Average female score (n=21) 35.33
  • Females scored significantly higher on questions 3 and 11.
  • Males scored significantly higher on questions 5, 7, 8, 10, 16, 17, and 20.
  • Females scored somewhat higher than males on questions 1, 4, 6, 14, and 18.
  • Males scored somewhat higher on questions 2, 9, 12, 13, 15, and 19.
  • *(Although many more people completed the survey, we could only identify 84 responses as male or female).

These results confirm some interesting speculations made by researchers in geography and psychology:

  1. Females appear to be more “landmark” oriented than males when parsing an environment.
  2. Before and during travel, females are more likely to consult travel aids (such as maps).
  3. Males are more attuned to layout and frames of reference (e.g., cardinal directions).
  4. Males are more confident of their spatial skills, such as estimating inter-landmark distances or “knowing where they are.” Of course, being more confident doesn’t always imply superior spatial ability!

 Questions on Incidental Geographic Knowledge

1. Is Miami (Florida) east or west of Santiago (Chile)? east or  west

2. Is the University of California Berkley east or west of Stanford University? east or  west

3. Is Chicago (Illinois) north, south, or about the same latitude as Milan (Italy)? north,  south, or  about the same

4. Does the equator pass through the Caribbean? Yes or  No

5. Which is further west: the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal or the Caribbean Sea entrance? Pacific or  Caribbean

6. Is Cairo (Egypt) north or south of San Antonio (Texas)? north or  south

7. Is Tokyo (Japan) east or west of Melbourne (Australia)? east or  west

8. Which of the following countries is NOT among the world’s ten most populous countries? India,  Brazil,  Australia

9. Is Denver, Colorado or New Orleans, Louisiana closer to Chicago, Illinois? Denver or New Orleans

10. Where are you most likely to find a modern hardware wholesale store located? downtown.  in a planned shopping mall,  on a suburban arterial road or highway

11. If you were driving between Denver (CO) and Omaha (NE), were more than half way, and had just driven through (or by) a town of about 60,000 people, would the next urban center likely be larger?  smaller?  about the same size?

12. If you were driving in a large city and wanted to get some Kentucky Fried Chicken, where would you be more likely to find a KFC franchise placed? near a hospital,  near a gas station,  on a local road near the city’s edge,  in a strip shopping center near a high school