Walk with me while I tell you about a new study into the psychology of finding our way. The research has uncovered at least three mental strategies. When asked to plan ahead and describe the most efficient route between two locations, we apparently visualise connections between highly salient streets, which leads us to formulate a relatively longer route, with fewer turns. This is known as graph-based way-finding. But asked to actually walk between the same two points, we base our route more on direction, make more turns, take smaller streets, and navigate more efficiently, as ongoing feedback from the unfolding scene reminds us of short-cuts. This incremental approach is known as direction-based wayfinding. The third mental strategy is brought to bear when we give directions to a stranger, with reference made to the simplest possible route, with the fewest turns and passing the most salient landmarks.
Christoph Hölscher at the University of Freiburg and his colleagues said this is the first time that anyone has shown “how different planning and navigation conditions lead to different wayfinding strategies”. They asked dozens of participants to plan, describe and walk routes through Freiburg. All those involved were highly familiar with the city. Asked to describe the shortest possible route between two city locations, and then asked to walk the shortest possible route between those same two points, not a single participant followed the path they’d actually described.
“It is noteworthy that none of the participants adhered to the route they had described only minutes ago,” the researchers said. “They discarded their previously made plan directly after getting perceptual feedback about spatial properties, and showed little sign of trying to pursue an action sequence that they had previously identified as their own best solution.”
The new results undermine earlier claims that routes are generally planned entirely in advance. “In addition,” the researchers said, “the results highlight the importance of sensory (visual) feedback from the environment for route planning.”
Hölscher, C., Tenbrink, T., and Wiener, J. (2011). Would you follow your own route description? Cognitive strategies in urban route planning. Cognition, 121 (2), 228-247 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.06.005
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