Virtual reality research finds large sex difference in navigational efficiency

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Men took more shortcuts and reached their target location faster (via Boone et al, 2018)

By Emma Young

After spending a day exploring a new city and it’s time to return to your hotel, do you tend to rely on landmarks and routes that you’ve learned, or do you consult a “mental map” that you’ve created of the area, to try to devise a short-cut back? If you’re a man, you’re more likely to try the latter – whereas women tend to use routes they know, according to a new paper in Memory and Cognition by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Though Alexander Boone, Xinyi Gong and Mary Hegarty are keen not to be seen as promoting the idea that men are better navigators, a mental map approach is generally regarded as being superior, as it permits novel shortcuts (when they are possible, of course). And in this new virtual reality study, men were not only significantly more likely than women to take short cuts, but they were, on average, more efficient at finding their way to target locations.

The researchers ran two experiments on groups of UC Santa Barbara students. In the first, 68 men and women were guided along a set route through a virtual maze. The maze measured 55 by 55 metres, and appeared to have concrete walls. Twelve objects (including a chair, a duck, a wooden well and a stove) were placed at various points along the route.

After learning this route, the participants were re-positioned at different locations along it and asked to navigate to another point; for example they were placed near the wooden well and asked to navigate to the stove. Each participant completed 24 navigation trials. In half, it was possible to take a novel shortcut. In six, the shortest novel route and the learned path were the same length, and in a further six, the learned route was in fact the shortest path to the target.

Two raters looked at the routes that the participants took in all the trials and coded each as ‘taking a shortcut’, ‘taking the learned route’, ‘reversing the learned route’, or ‘wandering’. To assess navigation efficiency, times and distances travelled to the goals were all computed.

The second experiment, involving a new batch of 72 students, was largely a replication of the first.

In both experiments, men showed a greater preference for taking shortcuts than women, who were more likely to follow learned routes and to wander. And on average, the men were significantly faster, and covered less ground, in reaching the target objects.

Earlier studies have either found no gender differences on navigation challenges, or found that the male participants did better. This study goes a little further, in that it investigates the kinds of strategies that men and women tend to choose themselves. (Interestingly, the strategies that the participants actually used didn’t match up well with the kinds of strategies they reported generally taking.) Still, the findings do tally with those suggesting that men tend to be superior navigators in situations in which: a). It’s possible to create a mental map, and b). that map can be useful (in an environment where shortcuts aren’t possible, it’s not likely to help). The researchers do stress, however, that some women in their study were just as efficient as the best male performers.

If men are more likely to use mental maps, which permit shortcuts, and women are more likely to use known routes and to wander, why might this be? It has been suggested by psychologists that while using landmarks and known routes won’t always be as efficient, this is likely to be a safer option for women (who, it’s argued, are more vulnerable than men), both in terms of avoiding getting lost and in reducing the risk of encountering something dangerous. (If taking a shortcut turns out to require tiptoeing around a bear’s den, the risk to life surely outweighs the potential gain in cutting a few minutes from the journey home…).

Overall, even in the cases when men and women used the same strategy to navigate, the men were faster at getting to the targets. Why might men be faster at following or reversing a known route? All the participants did get some training in navigating around a VR maze. But the men reported spending more time playing video games than the women. Perhaps that extra gaming practise explains it. In a real-world environment, would men still have the advantage? Only future research can tell.

Sex differences in navigation strategy and efficiency

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

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