Cognitive Daily

When we were first married, Greta and I lived in New York City for five years. One of the biggest challenges of living in New York was navigating around the subway stations, complex warrens of underground tunnels that can extend for hundreds of yards. I was certain I had the best method for figuring out where to go: try to keep a mental map of the entire station in my head, not relying so much on local landmarks as the “big picture.” Greta was equally convinced that her way was best—look for local landmarks, signs, and other clues for where to go. Instead of remembering a “map,” she remembered the particulars of the route she needed to take.

This was one of the few ways our marriage broke down into traditional gender roles: men are more likely to use the “observer” perspective to navigate—thinking of the big picture, almost as if viewing the scene from overhead, while women tend to use the “field” perspective—relying on landmarks and other cues visible at ground level.

But what about when we need to take a detour: when part of the path we were planning to take is obstructed. Which strategy is more effective at getting us where we need to go? A team of researchers led by Gabriele Janzen explored this issue using a virtual maze (Gabriele Janzen, Marion Schade, Steffi Katz, and Theo Hermann, University of Manheim, “Strategies for Detour Finding in a Virtual Maze: The Role of the Visual Perspective,” Environmental Psychology, 2001).

Participants navigated the maze using virtual reality goggles and a joystick. They could turn their head to “see” from side to side, and the joystick controlled direction. They were first shown a video of one possible route through the maze, either from the field or observer perspective. Then they were told that a part of the maze was blocked, and they would need to search for a detour in order to find their way to the end.

Surprisingly, neither the field nor the observer perspective led participants to find the shortest route to the end of the maze. Take a look at this map of a section of the maze:

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The red line represents the route shown in the training video. When they reached point a, you might expect that people would realize the direct route indicated by the green line was shortest. But, in fact, whether they were shown the observer perspective from above the maze, or the field perspective (the way they actually experienced the maze), only 1 out of 60 participants found this simple shortcut.

And which perspective led to better knowledge of the maze? The observer perspective (typically preferred by men) did lead to fewer mistakes in navigation (though not the shortest route), but there was no difference in navigation behavior between men and women. However, men were able to draw slightly better maps of the maze after the experiment was complete. This confirms that men prefer to think of navigation from the observer perspective, but it leaves open the question of which strategy is more effective.

This result is also confirmed by our experiences navigating the subway in New York. Greta and I could both always eventually figure out where we were going, but I was more likely to think I knew the best way.