Before introducing the cultural diffusion model he is now better known for, Axelrod proposed mapping individuals’ reasoning process as a causal network.
“A person’s beliefs can be regarded as a complex system,” he argued, and, “given a person’s concepts and beliefs, and given certain rules for deducing other beliefs from them” it is therefore possible to model how “a person would make a choice among alternatives” (Axelrod, 1976).
Axelrod called these networks of beliefs and causal relationships “cognitive maps,” and he engaged other scholars in deriving cognitive maps for select political elites using a detailed hand-coding procedure of a subject’s existing documents.
For Axelrod, the representation of beliefs as a network was a natural and obvious extension of how individuals reason. “People do evaluate complex policy alternatives in terms of the consequences of a particular choice would cause, and ultimately of what the sum of these effects would be,” he argued. “Indeed, such cause analysis is built into our language, and it would be very difficult for us to think complete in other terms, even if we tried” (Axelrod, 1976).
Axelrod takes the nodes of these networks to be concepts, with directed edges between them indicating causal links. Importantly, the nodal concepts are not things but rather “variables that can take on different values.” This makes the cognitive map “an algebraic rather than a logical system.”
Axelrod saw great value in the approach of cognitive mapping – seeing them as tools to understand decision-making, resources capable of meaningful policy suggestions, and imagining how individuals’ maps could aggregate into a collective.