Learning to navigate through an unfamiliar environment can be a difficult challenge. Could you find your way through the crowded, narrow streets of the city depicted at left — especially if the signs were in a foreign language (bonus points if you can identify the city in the comments section!)?
If you do have to get around in a new place, what’s the best way to learn? People have different preferences — some prefer to look at a map first, while others orient themselves using landmarks. Is one method better for you? I prefer maps; nothing’s more frustrating to me than getting directions from someone who likes to use landmarks: “first you go past the gas station. Then look for a little flower stand on the right. After you pass that, then take the second left.” I’d much rather have someone tell me to “go north on Main Street, then head east on 3rd Avenue.” That is, until my recent vacation on Swan’s Island, Maine. None of the streets on the island had signs, and the houses weren’t numbered either. When I presented one of the locals with the address of the place we were staying, I was greeted with a blank stare. Only when I told her what the house looked like and the owner’s name was she able to direct me where I wanted to go — using landmarks, of course.
So is one method better than the other — or does personal preference matter? Do people who prefer to use landmarks learn better that way? Alexa Fields and Amy Shelton have developed a study to try to answer those questions.
Previous studies have found no difference between whether an area was learned with landmark-based navigation or map-based navigation, but these studies required participants to learn the space with as many as seven separate trips through it. Fields and Shelton believed that if participants had fewer opportunities to learn about the space, then they might find differences between the two types of learning. The researchers developed two three-dimensional virtual environments for study: a park, and a zoo. Here’s a top-view of the park environment:
Participants were shown through the environment once by an experimenter who identified all the landmarks in the environment (slide, tower, carousel). Then they were asked to study it on three virtual “trips” through it, following the path indicated by the arrows on the diagram. In the “map” condition, observers saw the environment only from above. In the “landmark” condition, they were transported through the 3-D environment as if they were walking through it, again, following the same path.
Next they were tested on their knowledge of the environment: they were asked to imagine standing at one of the landmarks, facing another, and then point in the direction of a third landmark (for example, “imagine you are standing at the slide, facing the swingset. Point to the carousel.”).
Finally they were tested on a wide array of spatial skills, including mapreading, mental rotation, and imagining the perspective of another (the tests they took weren’t identical to the ones I link here, but you get the idea…). They were also asked whether they prefered to orient themselves via maps or landmarks.
The results? Pointing error was significantly smaller when participants had seen the overhead (map) view rather than the walkthrough (landmark) view — 39 degrees versus 44 degrees. Preference for landmark- or map-based navigation did not affect the results: even if you prefer the landmark approach, you still learn the environment better with maps. Men were better at the task than women, and certain spatial abilities led to better performance in the tasks. Interestingly, spatial perspective was the most important skill in both landmark- and map-based learning, but while mental rotation was more important for map-based learning, spatial span, or the number of different objects you can recall, was more important for landmark-based learning.
So certain skills might help you become a better map-learner or landmark-learner, but they’re not going to override the overall superiority of using maps to learn an environment, at least for this task.
One big problem with this type of study is that environments can be very different. Perhaps in a different setting, landmark-based learning would be more effective. Both map-based and landmark-based navigation have their advantages, as demonstrated in my Swans Island example above.
How do you prefer to navigate? And can you identify the photo above? Let us know in the comments.
Fields, A.W., & Shelton, A.L. (2006). Individual skill differences and large-scale environmental learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32(3), 506-515.