Cognitive mechanisms underlying instructed choice exploration of small city maps
We investigated the cognitive mechanisms underlying the exploration and decision-making in realistic and novel environments. Twelve human subjects were shown small circular U.S. city maps with two locations highlighted on the circumference, as possible choices for a post office ("targets"). At the beginning of a trial, subjects fixated a spot at the center of the map and ultimately chose one of the two locations. A space syntax analysis of the map paths (from the center to each target) revealed that the chosen location was associated with the less convoluted path, as if subjects navigated mentally the paths in an "ant's way," i.e., by staying within street boundaries, and ultimately choosing the target that could be reached from the center in the shortest way, and the fewest turns and intersections. The subjects' strategy for map exploration and decision making was investigated by monitoring eye position during the task. This revealed a restricted exploration of the map delimited by the location of the two alternative options and the center of the map. Specifically, subjects explored the areas around the two target options by repeatedly looking at them before deciding which one to choose, presumably implementing an evaluation and decision-making process. The ultimate selection of a specific target was significantly associated with the time spent exploring the area around that target. Finally, an analysis of the sequence of eye fixations revealed that subjects tended to look systematically toward the target ultimately chosen even from the beginning of the trial. This finding indicates an early cognitive selection bias for the ensuing decision process.