Investigating Situational Differences in Individuals' Mental Representations of Activity-Travel Decisions: Progress and Empirical Illustration for the Impact of Online Alternatives

Oliver Horeni, Theo Arentze, Benedict G. C. Dellaert and Harry Timmermans


Purpose – This chapter focuses on individuals' mental representations of complex decision problems in transportation. An overview of approaches and techniques in this recent area of research is given as well as an illustration. The illustration concerns an application of CNET (causal network elicitation technique) to measure mental representations in a shopping activity scheduling task. The presence of an online shopping alternative is varied to investigate the influence of an online alternative on how individuals represent the choice problem.

Theory – Mental-model and means-ends-chain theories are discussed. These theories state that individuals when faced with a decision problem construct a mental representation of the choice alternatives by activating relevant parts of their broader causal knowledge that allow them to evaluate consequences regarding their existing needs. Furthermore, these theories emphasise that situational and person dependence of this process can explain observed variability in preferences of travellers.

Findings – The results indicate that considerable variation exists between individuals in terms of both the complexity, and the attributes and benefits that are activated in the mental representation of the choice problem. Presence of an online alternative has an influence on the benefits that individuals consider important. The impact is however small.

Originality and value – The chapter provides an overview of recent developments in the study of mental representations underlying choice behaviour. Traditionally, this has been the exclusive domain of qualitative research methods. The techniques reviewed enable larger samples and a formal representation of mental representations. Thus, the approach can help to better understand preference heterogeneity and incorporate this in (transport) choice models.

Keywords: Mental representation; laddering; Bayesian belief network; benefits; heterogeneity

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