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Why we fight over directions

So who has the better sense of direction — men or women? They both do, a new study says, but in different ways that have implications for how we give directions. MSNBC’s Jon Bonné reports.
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You know the drill: He’s driving, she’s navigating. He’s sure, yes sure, that they need to turn left. Not for another two blocks, she insists, just like the directions say. So who has the better sense of direction?

They both do, a new study says, but in different ways that have implications for how to make maps and write directions. And believe it or not, people usually do know exactly how good a sense of direction they have.

The Canadian study, published in the most recent issue of the Annals of the American Association of Geographers, examined how people navigated through a specific area guided only by their sense of direction.

Some of the experiments, which were conducted on the campus of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, included outside references such as buildings or a river to rely on; others required a deductive sense of orientation and memory of specific locations and distances — a technique known as dead reckoning.

In one experiment, researchers walked volunteers through the campus along a preset route with numerous intersections, then asked them to retrace their path. In another, participants started at a tower on the campus and walked through a nearby neighborhood. They were then told to find the shortest way back using whatever shortcuts they could find, without using their original path.

Finally, some volunteers were shown a marked window outside a dorm tower, and were then taken inside the building and told to point out the direction of the window without being able to see it directly.

Men and women, the researchers found, each gravitated toward specific methods to find their way: Men would look quickly at landmarks and head off in what they estimated was the right direction. Women, however, would try to picture the entire route in precise detail and then follow the path in their head.

“They tend to be more detailed,” says Edward Cornell, the Alberta psychology professor who led the study, “whereas men tend to be a little bit faster and ... a little bit more intuitive.”

There was little difference in the end result: Men and women found their way equally well.

However, the study did suggest one way to determine the best navigator in a group of people: Ask them.

Those who believed they had a good sense of direction were also the ones who did best in the tests: They took less time and more intuitively found their way, even if they weren’t necessarily more efficient. By contrast, those who said their sense of direction was poor took longer, stopped more often and checked landmarks more frequently.

The two methods
In fact, says Cornell, “sense of direction” isn’t one skill but two. People rely on both a “survey representation” and a “route representation” to find their way.

In the survey method, you visualize an area’s layout from a top-down view, like a printed map, comparing different landmarks based on how they’re placed in relation to each other. In the route method, you use a series of directions — turn left, turn right, go uphill — to tell you how to get somewhere specific.

Both methods work together to give us spatial cognition, the mental process of relating to spaces around us, which is what allows us to find our way.

What the Edmonton study found was that men were more likely to use the survey method, using a specific landmark in the distance to find their way, while women were more likely to use a specific route and follow directions.

Both work, and neither is inherently better. But knowing which one is easier for someone to understand can make a huge difference in getting them where they want to go. It also explains that classic situation of a man driving and a woman in the passenger seat, navigating. The man misses a turn but claims a couple quick turns will fix the problem.

“She’s already getting nervous because they missed the turn, they’re off route,” Cornell says.

Our hypothetical couple goes on a bit further and hits a dead end — “and she says, ‘We’re lost,’ and he says, ‘We’re not really lost,’” Cornell says.

At that point, the man is thinking of their position in survey terms, as though he could pinpoint it on a map — indeed, they’re probably not far from where they’re going. The woman, however, is frustrated because he’s broken the route structure that would get them to their destination.

Learning by gender
Actually, biologists and anthropologists have argued before that these different skills have a long history and can be observed even in remote societies, such as the aborigines in Australia’s Gibson Desert. Some argue this is due to the difference in traditional roles.

“Somewhere around onset of puberty, young men go out with the adult men on long-distance forays and these involve unfamiliar territory,” Cornell says.

These trips, often to fish or hunt, involve lots of unfamiliar territory covered over hours or days. The only way to maintain one’s bearings, Cornell argues, is by using the survey method to draw a mental map, remembering landmarks and clues that will allow them to find their way back. Young men thus learn to memorize a set of spatial relations: the mountains are here, the lake is there.

By contrast, women take young girls out to forage for fruits and plants, an activity much closer to home but one that requires precise learning of defined trails. As such, their own sense of space is based on learning a mental network of specific routes rather than assembling vague spatial relationships.

Neither method is superior: Each is tailored to its own specific purpose — which is why a set of directions might be less useful on a hike in the woods and a map might not help if you’re driving to a friend’s house.

New map methods
Of course, people nowadays are more likely to be driving on a highway than tracking game — and that may be changing how we learn to get from point A to point B. While the survey method is crucial in interpreting print maps, for example, following Internet driving directions or the GPS navigation in your dashboard requires understanding routes.

Even so, these technologies mostly translate printed maps into electronic form — and add directions on the side. They use both methods, but separately.

Old technology has problems, too. Printed maps must be designed for all sorts of customers, and designers constantly must decide how much information to put on the map. Too much and it becomes cluttered and unreadable; too little and it may leave out crucial details.

“We will always end up with a hierarchy of information,” says Joel Minster, vice president of geographic information services at mapmaker Rand McNally. “Generally the test is, if you kind of hold it away from you and squint at it, do you see the major features and all the minor stuff kind of fades away into the background?”

New technology makes it easier for the map user to to change that hierarchy so that the information you need is brought to the forefront. But this isn’t a matter of simply zooming in and out on your destination. Minster sees navigation maps in the future working much more like a set of driving directions — clear symbols telling you where to go and a minimum of clutter, just enough to get you there.

That still won’t solve every problem. Navigation maps aren’t the same as reference maps; even if the map in your car shows how to get to the beach, you’ll still want an atlas that shows the location of Turkmenistan.

More to the point, it’s not easy to translate information between maps and written directions. Even if you have both, you probably choose one or the other and go with it, depending on what feels more comfortable — and an unfamiliar method can leave people feeling unsettled. Says Minster: “Even the people who have the GPS in the car have the map book on the seat next to them.”

Cornell sees many of the same hurdles, and believes some of mapmakers’ holy grails — a constant map scale, for example — might eventually be subsumed by map readers’ demands for clarity. But not everyone is apt to agree.

“There’s cartographers who are sensitive,” he says, “and there are those who think we should teach kids how to read maps properly.”