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Why Some People Have Such a Poor Sense of Direction

Current research on the 3 types of navigators.

Phairin Theekawong/Shutterstock
Source: Phairin Theekawong/Shutterstock

I’m driving with my wife to a friend’s house that we’ve never been to before.

“Why don’t you use the GPS?” she asks.

“Because I know where I’m going,” I reply.

She sighs and reaches over to turn on the GPS. “Well I don’t know where you’re going,” she mutters.

My wife and I fit the classic gender stereotype about men being good with directions and women easily getting lost. And it's true that some studies looking at men’s and women’s performance in navigational skills have found slight gender differences. The usual explanation is that men tend to navigate by generating two-dimensional maps in their head, while women tend to navigate by routes and landmarks.

There’s even an evolutionary story to “explain” this gender difference. In hunter-gatherer days, it was always the men who hunted and the women who gathered. Men as hunters chased game across open spaces, so they needed a good sense of the lay of the land. Thus, their brains evolved to navigate by mental maps. But women as gatherers collected fruits and vegetables. Since plants remain in the same location, the women evolved brains that navigate by routes and landmarks.

There may be a grain of truth to this evolutionary “just-so” story, but it’s also quite easy to exaggerate gender differences. Plenty of men are bad at directions, and plenty of women navigate without difficulty.

In fact, we need both kinds of navigational strategies:

  • Mental-map navigation is useful for familiar terrain that you traverse frequently. You probably have a good mental map of your neighborhood, and you can go to the supermarket, drop off the dry cleaning, stop by the pharmacy, and get your hair done without first returning home and then departing for each new destination.
  • Route-landmark navigation is convenient when you frequently travel back and forth between the same two points. Your commute to work is a good example. The route becomes so familiar that you don’t even need to think about how to navigate it, driving as if on autopilot.

In a research review, psychologists Steven Weisberg and Nora Newcombe explored individual differences in navigational abilities. To test people’s abilities to create mental maps of new locations, they had previously asked research participants to navigate through a virtual reality scene resembling a small college campus, with crisscrossing pathways and various buildings scattered about.

The training phase of the experiment consisted of four excursions through the virtual reality environment. During the first two excursions, the participants traveled along two different main routes that never intersected. They also learned the names of four buildings along each of these routes. In the last two excursions, they traveled along two different connecting routes, each of which crossed the two main routes.

The test phase consisted of two tasks. In the first task, the participant was dropped in front of each building and asked to point in the direction of each of the other seven buildings. In the second task, they were shown a layout of the pathways and asked to drag icons of the buildings to their proper locations.

These tasks enabled the researchers to test two navigational abilities.

  • Within-route learning involves memory for landmarks along familiar routes. This ability corresponds to the route-landmark style of navigation.
  • Between-route learning involves making inferences about how the landmarks on the two main routes are related to each other based on their experiences of traveling along the connector routes. This corresponds to the mental-map style of navigation.

Some believe that there are two types of people, those who navigate by routes and landmarks, as opposed to those who navigate by mental maps. But this isn’t what Weisberg and Newcombe found. In fact, their participants clustered into three distinct groups, which they called integrators, non-integrators, and imprecise navigators:

  • Integrators were good at both within-route and between-route learning. In other words, they were familiar with the landmarks along the routes they traveled, and they also had a good understanding of the general layout of the terrain.
  • Non-integrators were good at within-route learning, but not between-route. That is to say, they remembered the landmarks along the two main routes they traveled, but they didn’t see how these two routes were connected. This meant they had little understanding of how a building on one route was related to a building on the other route.
  • Imprecise navigators performed poorly on both tasks. They clearly had no mental map connecting the routes and buildings. But they also performed poorly on the routes they were familiar with. Their within-route performance was still above chance, however, indicating that they did learn something.

But what accounts for these individual differences in navigational skills? Weisberg and Newcombe tested a number of possible explanations.

First, they looked at motivation. Perhaps those who performed poorly did so because they weren’t motivated to learn the layout. After all, they were navigating through a virtual reality environment they could escape from at any moment. But in the real world, we have a pretty strong incentive not to get lost, so we’re more likely to put in the effort to learn our way around.

In a replication of the experiment, the researchers offered cash prizes to the best performers. But the participation still clustered into the same three groups: integrators, non-integrators, and imprecise navigators.

Second, the researchers considered anxiety. Some people believe they’re bad at directions and get nervous when they have to navigate on their own. In a second replication, this is exactly what the researchers found. The imprecise navigators, on average, reported that they feel apprehensive when they need to get themselves to locations they’ve never been to before. But as Weisberg and Newcombe point out, we can’t assume causation from this correlation. It could be that imprecise navigators are anxious, because they’ve had frightening experiences of getting lost in the past, or it could be that their anxiety interferes with their efforts to concentrate on the navigation task.

Third, the researchers examined cognitive abilities. They found that the integrators were also good at mental rotation tasks, such as determining whether two similar objects are the same or different without physically manipulating them. Likewise, the integrators were better than the others at perspective-taking. This involves imagining what a layout would look like from another vantage point. So perhaps some people are simply better at creating and manipulating imagined objects in imagined spaces.

Finally, they tested personality factors. The researchers found that the integrators scored higher than the others on three of the Big Five dimensions, openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness:

  • Openness refers to a positive attitude toward new experiences and a high level of curiosity.
  • Extraversion refers to an outgoing nature and a high level of energy.
  • Conscientious refers to diligence and determination to get things done.

So perhaps integrators have an open attitude, lots of energy, and a determination to learn the layouts of the new places they visit. These may be the people who go for a walk as soon as they check into their hotel, just to get a feel for the lay of the land. It could be that it’s an innate ability for spatial imagery that gives them confidence, or maybe they’ve just practiced their skills at mental map-making.

Likewise, it could be that imprecise navigators lack the spatial imagery abilities needed to make good mental maps. But perhaps instead they set up a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they convince themselves that they’re no good at directions. They’re worried about getting lost, so they don’t think straight and lose their way.

There are wide individual differences in how well people can make and use mental maps. Those who are good at navigating to novel locations shouldn’t just assume everyone is like them. Likewise, those who easily get lost need to understand that there’s nothing wrong with them and that there are plenty of people like them. And if these imprecise navigators can just stop worrying about getting lost, they may find they’re better at navigating than they thought.

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Weisberg, S. M. & Newcombe, N. S. (2018). Cognitive maps: Some people make them, some people struggle. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1177/0963721417744521

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