I'll Find My Way

Exploring Personal Identity through Cognitive Mapping

Thicket Labs worked with Chinatown Youth Initiatives to explore the relationship between spatial environments and identity in the lives of NYC students.

How Do Young Community Leaders Navigate Identity & Environment?

Chinatown Youth Initiatives (CYI) has been equipping young New Yorkers with the knowledge and skills necessary to address the needs of Chinatown, Asian Americans, and underrepresented communities since 2000. Through projects like Chinatown Beautification Day, Chinatown Literacy Project, Summer Leadership Institute, and the Hate Crimes Prevention Project, CYI has incubated a generation of young leaders committed to building community for Chinatown and beyond.

How do we build strong measurement models for intangible social dynamics?

But the impact of community building programs like CYI aren't always easy to measure. Often, we compare student academic performance with or without extra-curricular activities to show that students with extra-curriculars perform better in school. But what specifically are students gaining from programs like CYI that they aren't getting in school? And how do we quantify that value to build stronger measurement models for intangible social dynamics? This is what Thicket Labs set out to investigate.

CYI participants engaged in a workshop activity.

Until now, nuanced ideas like culture, identity, and feelings have been hard to quantify. Complex social dynamics at play in communities are largely invisible and often go under-valued in research and evaluation, presented as a series of text-based anecdotes. At Thicket, we build tools to visualize the unseen infrastructure that guides social systems. We decided to map the cognitive process of personal identity making in order to understand how CYI fits into that picture. What we discovered about the value of CYI compared to other learning environments like school surprised even us.

Until now, nuanced ideas like culture, identity, and feelings have been hard to quantify.

We developed and applied a new cognitive measurement model to measure the impact of CYI on its members. This report reveals that for most members, CYI is the most positive space in their lives by a significant margin. Below, you'll see CYI's impact visualized as an emotional imprint on the lives of its members. Contrasted with the emotional imprints of other spaces like home and school, it is quite possible that CYI may be the most impactful space for some members during the critical teenage years of self-development.


Chinatown Beautification Day: A Legacy Of Building Community Resilience

Chinatown Beautification Day (CBD) was founded in 2002 to respond to the needs of the Chinatown community after 9/11. Many highly affected areas of Chinatown needed support to move beyond the tragedy, and CBD was conceived of as a way to reinvigorate the community. Armed with dustpans, brooms, and garbage cans, young people from all around NYC spent the day sweeping the streets of Chinatown and expressing a sense of respect, appreciation, and personal responsibility for NYC’s Chinatown.

Chinatown streetscape. Photo credit CYI Facebook.

Conference participants explored solutions to obstacles while educating and empowering their peers.

What began as a mission to address concerns of negligence in post-9/11 Lower East Side has since evolved into a two-part event that brings youth from all around the city to participate in a unique learning experience. In 2004, CYI added a youth conference component to the annual CBD event. The CBD conference organizes workshops around a different theme each year to help participants explore their personal identity while fostering their role as youth leaders in their communities.

Clean-Up Day

This year’s Clean Up day featured around 200 students from all across NYC. After starting the day at partnering organization Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, participants scattered to cover different Chinatown territories. Throughout the day they set about caring for their community and sending an important message about the younger generation's respect and sense of responsibility for Chinatown. The breadth of the participant body that collected to clean Chinatown, representing all 5 boroughs, showcased the commitment of NYC youth to keeping Chinatown a reflection of NYC’s vitality.

Conference Day

Conference Day 2014 was a full day event that took place at CUNY’s Asian/Asian-American Research Institute focused on the theme of Breaking Barriers. CYI created a space for over 40 students to share discourse on obstacles they face in their lives as young people of New York City’s Chinatown Community. Through a day of workshops, panels, and small group discussions, CBD conference participants explored solutions to these obstacles while educating and empowering their peers.


Introducing The Cognitive Wellbeing Measurement Model

The process of building identity is particularly exploratory as individuals transition from adolescence to adulthood, and discoveries made during the teenage years can have resounding reverberations for a lifetime. In designing an identity mapping experience for high school-aged students, we wanted to equip students with tools to increase their sense of agency over their identities. With this guiding principle in mind, we set out to design a cognitive model that would help students to engage critically with identity in the context of their daily lives.

Our cognitive model visualizes physical and social spaces on equal terms.

Identity is often discussed through the lens of personality traits (smart, funny, curious) as well as physical (age, height, ethnicity) or social characteristics (sister, student, friend). While we often use these collections of facts to easily represent ourselves to others, we also learn to recognize ourselves by how we cognitively align within our social spaces. This process of identity formation through emphasizing and de-emphasizing certain characteristics based on a cognitive relationship with a space is called self-construal.

How Identity Emerges through Interaction

The idea of self-construal emerged in the 1990s, from research by Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama, as a way to understand how identities are formed as a cognitive process over time, and in particular how the self is defined in relation to other people as well as environmental factors. These outside influences can range from abstract concepts such as the culture and media to the personal and relational groupings of neighborhood, community, and peer groups. In the process of self-construal, the self is defined through characteristics that distinguish the self as independent of others (e.g., personality traits) or interdependent with others (e.g., societal roles).

The cognitive wellbeing model captures individual social dynamics as an emotional imprint.

Self-construal helps show how we build our identities through a process of dynamic negotiation between self and space. Space, as we define it here, includes geographic places as well as social or cultural constructs. Our cognitive model visualizes physical and social spaces on equal terms. These spaces are bounded by often invisible boundaries of culture, social codes and norms, and communal networks.

But the spaces an individual interacts with are not the sum of a person’s identity. In our model, we wanted to avoid reducing a person's identity into an aggregate of the spaces they visit. For this reason, we introduced emotional response into our model to visualize the interaction between space and identity. By mapping emotional response, the model protects the integrity of unique identity while capturing individual social dynamics as an emotional imprint.

A-B: Identity formation is represented as a set of emotional responses to a spatial interaction.

Our approach to dissecting the relationship between space and personal identity is grounded in complexity theory as applied to complex social systems. Complexity theory understands human beings as participants within a larger complex system who respond to behaviors within the system. The spaces a person navigates evoke a response within them, which we unpacked and distilled as a set of 20 emotional responses in our model.

The complex process of identity formation can be seen as an emergent behavior.

Another anchoring principle provided by complexity theory is that human beings are themselves complex systems. The process of identity formation can be seen as an emergent behavior that results from our continuous process of navigating daily life. The physical and social spaces we visit are not the sum of our experience, and our personality traits are not the sum of our identities. Complexity theory states that these elements are interrelated and all have an impact on shaping our identities over time. This is why our model is based around a repetitive loop of interaction. Each time an individual visits a space, the experience generate an interaction loop, or a set of emotional responses that influences their identity. Over time, these interactions loops aggregate, representing the unique emotional imprint a space leaves on an individual.

C-D: The emotional imprint of a space visualized as an interaction loop.

To incorporate emotional response into our model, we selected 20 emotional states to measure cognitive interaction between individual and system. The 20 states make up ten pairs of polemic states that have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s ability to engage in cognitive interactions within the system.

Of these ten pairs, six we classified as consistent in their positive or negative impact on individuals and condensed the pairs into six emotional spectrums. Four pairs are relative in their impact, meaning that depending on the context of the spatial interaction, the emotional response might be considered positive or negative. Because of this possibility, we included a check box to indicate whether a survey taker considered the emotional state they were describing to be positive or negative.


New Tools For Understanding Complex Social Systems

We had the opportunity to develop and field a survey to all the conference participants in addition to the set of workshop participants. The logistics of the two groups led to two questionnaires, a paper-based questionnaire for the general conference group, and a mobile-based questionnaire for workshop participants.

Conference participants filling out surveys.

To create the data collection and visualizing tools we needed to test our model, we used our technology platform called the Possibility Engine, which we developed to map and analyze complex social systems. The Possibility Engine is based on a research methodology called fuzzy cognitive mapping. Fuzzy cognitive mapping is a new way to store, visualize, and analyze information, derived from the synthesis of two research tools: cognitive maps and fuzzy logic.

Cognitive Maps

Edward Tolman first demonstrated the existence of cognitive maps in 1948, when he showed that rats had a spatial memory map of sorts that allowed them to navigate a restructured maze. In his work, Tolman didn’t make a distinction between the capacity of rats or humans or between storing information about physical environments or social environments.

Our tool builds human wayfinding abilities in relation to social spaces.

In other words, he suggested that humans as well as rats have the ability to create mental models that can store social data as well as geographic data in a spatial structure. Many fields have since run with this idea and applied cognitive mapping to a wide range of studies. The wayfinding experience Tolman’s rats went through in their quest for treats is in essence what we applied to the quest for identity. The tool we developed builds human wayfinding abilities in relation to social spaces.

Fuzzy Logic

Fuzzy logic is a branch of mathematics that accommodates approximate answers rather than forcing a precise result. Fuzzy logic can handle situations in which we don’t know all of the variables at play, or scenarios in which there are multiple truths, not only a single truth. This makes fuzzy logic ideal for managing complex information systems in which we need to analyze factors leading to multiple possible outcomes. For example, fuzzy logic can identify promising locations for a new subway station based on streams of information such as environmental factors, traffic patterns, funding streams, and public opinion data.

Fuzzy logic can handle scenarios in which there are multiple truths, not only a single truth.

Fuzzy cognitive mapping allows us to take individual cognitive maps and quantify them in order to integrate them into a single cognitive map with multiple perspectives represented. In order to quantify the cognitive map, Circles are assigned a value between 0 and 1 to represent presence of the concept. Lines are quantified and assigned a value between 0 and 1 to represent strength of influence. Arrowheads are translated as positive or negative signs which are then assigned to the influence value.

Conference participants filling out paper and digital surveys.

Survey & Workshop Questionnaires

The cognitive mapping data collection process can be quite lengthy. For this reason, we pre-defined six spaces for paper-based survey participants to evaluate in terms of the twenty emotional states: CYI, Extra-Curricular spaces in general, Home, School, Media, and Social Groups. These are large conceptual spaces that can cover many activities, so we created example features within these spaces. We also asked participants to write in their own features. Participants compared their emotional states across these spaces by filling out a series of Likert scales.

The discussion focused on relating personal agency to emotional response.

We distributed the paper-based questionnaire to CBD Conference Day participants with the exception of those registered for the mapping identity workshop, yielding 30 completed surveys. We also followed up with CYI participants after CBD to offer those who hadn’t attended the conference the opportunity to fill out the survey on SurveyGizmo, which brought in four additional responses. In total, we gathered data from 34 CYI participants.

Workshop participants were given a link to an online questionnaire that linked to the digital mapping interface. Because of the online format, survey takers had more freedom to identify their own spaces to evaluate rather than being confined to the six we identified. The only one that carried over as a required space was CYI. We had 18 workshop participants, but worked with one student’s data as an example during the 60-minute workshop. The workshop discussion guided participants to talk about their sense of personal agency over their environments as expressed by their emotional response to individual spaces.


How Spaces Impact Personal Agency

The six spaces reported on below provide a snapshot of how CYI members feel as they navigate their daily lives. The results of our survey demonstrate that CYI is doing an excellent job of carrying out its mission as an organization that focuses on providing young people with a space to explore their identities. When paired with the impact of school, the results carry extra weight.

Emotional Imprints by Space

Key Survey Insights

CYI clearly provides a supportive space with a strongly positive impact on all six of the personal agency metrics we evaluated. A majority of the participants in the CYI program are motivated by the desire to find a space where they can connect to Asian American identity and culture so this is not a surprise, however, the gap between CYI and the other spaces we asked about was quite sizeable.

Extra-Curricular programs (which includes CYI for all survey respondents) are also beneficial but not as strongly impactful as CYI by itself. It is generally accepted that students who participate in extra-curricular activities outperform their peers who do not participate in extra-curricular activities. These scores point to some of the supportive qualities extra-curricular programs offer that are not supplied by schools.

Social groups provide an important support network but don’t have as strong a positive impact on participants’ confidence. The element of structured self-exploration that many extra-curricular programs offer is a possible factor, as well as the need to conform to social groups expectations for fear of stigmatization.

Home is not a particularly supportive space for survey participants, particularly in terms of energy. Participants are weakly connected, listened to, and feel limited in their freedom. It’s possible that the lack of energy is linked to daily routines, resulting in drained students returning home at the end of the day to go to sleep. This space in particular, because it covers so much terrain, could use additional context to better interpret results.

School, the defining critical pathway to success for these students, is actively harming their sense of agency.

Media doesn’t provide participants with a sense of being listened to and has a negative impact on participants’ sense of freedom. As CYI participants are largely Asian American in terms of cultural and ethnic background, mainstream media may not be serving their needs, resulting in the low listening score. The limiting nature of media is striking. It would be valuable to understand how participants are defining media here, whether it includes social media channels as well as broadcast media and/or video games and other forms of media.

School is a very negative space for participants, with an actively detrimental impact on participants sense of confidence, anxiety, and energy. The critical impact of school on participant futures, linked to these results, presents a worrying relationship. School, the defining critical pathway to success for these students, is actively harming their sense of agency.

Authenticity by Space

Authenticity on the balance, appears to be a positive resource for survey participants. There was a pretty even split between identifying as traditional or nontraditional in different spaces. It seems both can be considered positive or negative depending on the context. In terms of conformity, fitting in is generally considered positive, but the positive or negative value of standing out was more dependent on the context.

What does CYI do that no other space does for you?

“It gives me space to be who I want to be. Allows me to open myself up without fear of judgement.”

“Safe space to speak with people who share my background and passion.”

“Provides a greater space to express myself.”

“Allows me to challenge what I know and construct my own politics.”

“Talk about my heritage and how it affects me and my community.”

“Validates my experience and broadens my perspective.”

“It creates a safe space for discussion and bonding through sharing experiences and emotions. We can be completely vulnerable and still be ourselves without having barriers or walls to protect us. It is a community that we built ourselves and one that we've grown to love and cherish.”

“I feel like I’m not constantly being judged in CYI and that I can just express myself without worrying about what other people might think.”

Collaborative Or Individual Orientation by Space

We had hypothesized that the collaborative versus individual indicator might point to the distinction between independent and interdependent self-construal, or identity building. Independent self-construal orients your understanding of your world in terms of individual personality traits that differentiate you from others, while interdependent self-construal orients your understanding of your world in terms of your various roles within society. The choice of collaborative or individual could indicate how a space might prime or influence individuals to lean towards a self-construal model for understanding their identity.

What we found is that selecting collaborative seems to correlate with the level of connection participants feel in various spaces. CYI provides a highly collaborative environment. School and home emerge as more individual spaces where participants feel less connected. Identifying with the emotional state of individual could suggest a sense of isolation. It is unclear whether there is a relationship to self-construal orientation. More study in this area could help us further investigate the relationship between individual and communal identity.


Education, Exploration, And Empowerment Through Live Mapping

We guided participants through a workshop based on CYI’s main themes of education, exploration, and empowerment. To kick off the workshop experience, we led participants through a series of introductory activities designed to introduce the three concepts in our system, and prepare them for experiencing the identity map.

Workshop participants interpreting the cognitive map.

We started by giving each participant ten seconds to describe themselves. We then introduced a set of vocabulary through a matching exercise in which pairs matched the vocabulary words to their definitions to achieve alignment on how we were using words with broad definitions like “identity” and “culture”, and to define more complex terms like “cognitive map”. We went back to our first activity and asked participants to describe a space in which they felt most like themselves in 15 seconds. The answers differed greatly from the way individuals described themselves from the first round.

Prompt 1: Describe yourself to the group in 10 seconds. Watch the clock!

Prompt 2: Match the terms with their definitions. Do you agree with them?

Prompt 3: Describe a space where you feel most like yourself. Watch the clock!

We then transitioned into the main activity, a group exploration of the identity map. One participant volunteered her map to be explored by the group. The identity map was displayed in two ways: as a randomly generated cognitive map and as a simple list interface. The data on the cognitive map interface could be moved around using a mouse, so we allowed the participants to take control of how the map was organized. The list interface displayed emotions from strongest to least impactful. When clicked, each of the emotions would expand to display the spaces that contributed to feeling that emotion, displayed in order of how strongly they contributed to the emotion.

Participants then spent the rest of the workshop on two activities: experimenting with different ways to organize the information on the map, and comparing the two interfaces to understand their relative merits. As students explored the map, their dialogue transitioned from first learning how the map worked to exploring different ways to organize the map to thinking about how they could use the map to to manage their daily routines to create a stronger environment for their own personal growth. The discussion was rich with insights, both about the process participants went through to learn, explore, and use the map, and also about how they felt about the different interfaces.


While learning how the map works: “The emotions associated with the space matter more to your identity.”

While reorganizing the map: “Since the size and opacity seems to indicate that that is more important to your identity I am putting (the circles) closer to it rather than the workspace, and the smaller ones and less opaque ones are being placed closer to the spaces.”

Participant whose map was used as the example: “I'm surprised with home. Home tends to be what I consider to be negative feelings.”


“With the map it was a bit disorienting because you can move them in anyway, so the placement at first doesn't mean anything. In the list it is ranked so it's laid out for you.”

“The list is a little inorganic. Because there is so much diversity in how we think and how we feel on a daily basis, the map makes a lot more sense naturally. I would imagine our brains would be a lot more complex than this.”

“If you are talking about useful in terms of data, the map is more disorienting. So if you’re looking at your data and it is a means to an end, then the data in the list is much more straight forward and easier to handle.”


Where We Go From Here

For many community building groups, self-exploration goes hand in hand with their mission. With constantly shifting priorities that come from the expectations of spaces like school, home, social groups, media, and other extracurricular activities, it is difficult to create an environment for students to engage in self-exploration and a purposeful look at identity formation. CYI creates a space for this.

CYI’s impact extends far beyond the boundaries of Chinatown for its members.

CYI’s impact extends far beyond the boundaries of Chinatown to help members better navigate their daily lives. Youth seek out spaces like CYI, because they are looking for a feeling of agency that is lacking from one or more of their other spaces. The stark difference between the positive impact of CYI and detrimental impact of school points to the critical role CYI and similar youth community groups can play in fostering agency in the lives of young participants.

Cognitive mapping is a powerful tool for our social systems design toolkit, particularly in visualizing the invisible felt experiences and social dynamics of individuals and groups. The types of wayfinding tools and cues we find so helpful in navigating physical terrain may find their analogues in the social worlds we traverse, and we believe cognitive mapping could help us bridge these worlds more wisely.

Conference participants filling our paper surveys.

What We Would Do Differently

This research study is very much a pilot project with many experimental elements in both design and implementation. The base of participants is not large enough to describe in any statistically significant terms. As such, the results are directional for further study rather than conclusive. We would like to apply the cognitive wellbeing model to a larger community to visualize the impact of spatial interactions at scale to see what emerges.

The notion of priming has been on the frontlines of social science research.

After the workshop, we discussed challenges and limitations, and found many elements to addressed for next time. Certain elements of the paper questionnaire design confused a subset of respondents. Time constraints affected completion rates, so we had to discard a subset of questionnaires. Due to differences in the paper and workshop questionnaires, we were not able to include survey data from workshop participants in our dataset reported on here. We would redesign the questionnaires, allocate more time for data collection, and use a digital interface for all of our participants to standardize our data sets.

Workshop participants discussing the cognitive map.

Looking Forward

We are intrigued by the value of the cognitive wellbeing model for monitoring emotional health over time. During our user testing, we observed that the emotional states line of inquiry is strongly tied to personal interpretation as well as mood or state of mind. This brings up the notion of priming that has been on the frontlines of social science approaches to studying the cognitive process. An interesting avenue to take this pilot study further would be to field the questionnaire in different spaces to see if a bias toward the space inhabited while filling out the questionnaire would emerge.

It also points to the power of using the cognitive wellbeing model to monitor routines and link emotional health to physical health by integrating daily emotional health data with wearable monitors and quantified self devices. How would you answer the same set of questions in the morning, or late in the day? How does that correspond to your heart rate or blood pressure? We believe a monitoring study focusing on health and wellbeing at the individual level would be a powerful next step for taking the cognitive wellbeing model further.