In one week I’ll be heading off to Europe with my family for a long vacation. During the vacation, we’ll be driving over much of France and Northern Italy, as well as parts of Switzerland, so naturally, I’m beginning to think about how we’ll navigate from destination to destination. Being top of mind, I thought wayfinding might be an appropriate topic for this last Human Hardware column before our vacation. Also, knowing that my wife has virtually no sense of direction, I have also spent some time musing about gender differences in this ability. Digging into the research, I did find some interesting studies that address the issue. Also, there might be clues here about why men refuse to ask for directions, even when hopelessly lost, and why video games tend to be much more popular with males than females.
The three routes of navigation
First of all, before we pit men against women, a quick introduction to the ways we cognitively find our ways through unfamiliar environments. There are three basic ways we navigate: landmark knowledge, route knowledge and survey knowledge. As we begin to navigate an unfamiliar environment, we depend heavily on landmarks. We look for these and use them to mark our way. As we begin to get more familiar with the environment, we start to remember the routes we take from landmark to landmark, using this to retrace our routes when required. Finally, as we start to gain this knowledge, we use our base of both landmarks and routes to create a cognitive map of the space, so we can make decisions based on spatial differences between landmarks. We can make abstract judgments about the best way to navigate based on the map we have in our heads.
There is a corollary to the online world in the first two wayfinding strategies. When we begin to explore unfamiliar territory online, we very much depend on landmarks. Search engines are the ultimate landmarks, towering high above the online landscape. We go to them, launch a query that defines the scope of the landscape we wish to explore, defined by relevance to our intent rather than by geographic boundaries. Then, within this newly defined online space, we look for landmarks we recognize in the search results, whether they be authoritative sites or brands or domains that are familiar to us. Even route knowledge plays a part in online navigation. How many times have you said, “I can’t remember the URL, but I remember I searched for ‘insert appropriate query here’ on Google and it was the 3rd or 4th result down.”
Our Hereditary GPS System
There’s been a fair amount of research done in the differences between how men and women navigate. Generally speaking, men are more adept at navigation in 3D environments than women. In fact, this ability marks one of the most significant gender differences in ability (Halpern, 2000; Linn & Petersen, 1985, 1986). Interestingly, it seems to point out a difference in the way men and women navigate. Men seem to have an inherent sense of bearings, an instinct of which way north lies. Women navigate more by landmarks. In tests of ability to navigate virtual 3D environments, there wasn’t a significant difference in success levels as long as landmarks were left in place, but when these were removed, men showed an ability to keep their bearings and had a significantly higher degree of success (Sandstrom, Kaufman, & Huettel, 1998). This difference also shows when directions are given. Men tend to use cardinal directions (North, East, West and South) while women reference landmarks (Dabbs, Chang, Strong, & Milun, 1998; Denis, 1997; Harrell, Bowlby, & Hall-Hoffarth, 2000; Lawton, 2001; Miller & Santoni, 1986; Montello, Lovelace, Golledge, & Self, 1999; Schmitz, 1997; Ward, Newcombe, & Overton, 1986). Women also feel a degree of anxiety when entering intersections or exiting parking garages (Lawton, 1994, 1996), not knowing whether to turn right or left. This is certainly true of the women in my life, who seem to habitually choose the wrong direction.
Nature or nurture?
Up until recently, it was thought this difference in abilities could have resulted from the greater amount of freedom that was given to young boys to explore outdoor environments. In other words, it was nurture, not nature, that gave the gift of direction to men. But a recent study in Germany may indicate that the male sense of direction is inherent. Male and female subjects were given the task of navigating through an unknown virtual 3D environment and the resulting brain activity was captured with fMRI scanning. While there was a lot of overlap in the activated parts of the brain, a differential analysis showed a significant variation in brain activity between men and women. Women showed greater activity in the left and right pre-frontal regions, while men showed increased levels of activity in the hippocampus. What does this potentially mean? It means that women were thinking their way through the task, employing their conscious brains, while men were navigating intuitively at the sub-cortical level. The hippocampus is a key component of the limbic structures of the brain, the older (in evolutionary terms) part of our unconscious mind.
This finding has interesting implications and could explain much that has perplexed us about male behavior. For women, navigation is an intellectual task just like any other and because it’s being processed at that level, it’s rational to ask for help. Asking for directions is not an admission of defeat. But for a man, the ability to find something operates at an unconscious level. It’s part of who we are and so it’s subject to irrational behaviors and emotions. Could this be why we hate to ask directions?
Another possible implication is that males enjoy virtual games more because the job of navigating through the game environment is done at a subconscious level, whereas with women, it occupies more of the executive function of their brains, creating a greater cognitive load and reducing their ability to engage in the other aspects of the game. Perhaps a typical video game that involves 3D spatial navigation is a better match for the male brain. Purely speculative, but interesting nonetheless.
In the next column, we’ll continue to explore our wayfinding strategies and see how they can be relegated to habits given enough repetition. We’ll also look at the implications for online navigation and search.
Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.