Gender differences in navigation by Kristian Ruuska
It is commonly accepted that males are better at navigating than females, and whilst numerous studies have found that males generally arrive at the destination quicker and via a more direct route, females do have the upper hand when it comes to some aspects of spatial awareness.
There is also a common misconception that the observed differences in behavior between males and females is due to the brains having evolved to be physically different. Some recent research that indicates that there is a much better argument that explains the navigation differences better. (If you were hoping to find out about the differences in the male and female brain, then this article might give you some insight.)
Is it possible that the reason that the reason that men can get to their destination quicker is because they are more confident in their ability? Could this be where the term cocky originated?
One of the key findings in a recent study1 showed that regardless of the level of accuracy, male participants showed a much higher level of confidence than the females involved.
Figure 1- Mean proportion of errors using different strategies
For early humans, it was common for males to go out and hunt in a larger and more dangerous environment, whereas females stayed closer to safety of home and known as being gatherers rather than hunters.
This could explain the differences in why there are different strategies employed by males and females.
Males tend to make more use of the cardinal points to get to their destination. (e.g. The shop is north of the train station.) This is often faster and more effective as it is flexible enough to work from any start point.
Whereas females tend to rely more on landmarks to get to their destination. (e.g. Go past the milk bar and turn right to get to the shop.) Whilst this is just as effective, it is dependent on a specific start location, and the person must follow a set route, which is not necessarily the quickest method.
Numerous recent studies1&2 confirmed that females are capable of using geometric cues to navigate, but when presented with landmark information also, they will almost totally neglect the geometric information, whereas males will use both sets of information to make a more efficient decision.
In a virtual swim test where males and females had to find a hidden submerged platform, females typically struggled without landmark cues, or with unreliable landmark cues and took longer than their male counterparts to find the platform.
Figure 2 – An example of the virtual environment, showing the platform location.
Figure 3- Time taken to find the platform in the swim test.
It is reasonable to believe that the hormones of the different sexes play a strong part in determining the way in which we behave.
A group of Norwegian researchers has recently conducted a study to try to identify the regions that are used by males and females, and to identify what impact the male hormone had on the different regions in use.
The researchers had hoped that the test group would solve more tasks in the maze, but the evidence did not show this. However, the test did show that the test group had better knowledge of the maze than the control subjects, and that an increased use of the hippocampus was also observed (by use of a MRI). The hippocampus has been identified as being used for navigation (See earlier Blog: Use it or lose it).
Figure 4 – The virtual environment used in the study. (The section on the right was not shown to the test subject.)
It has been accepted that males are just better at navigating than women for many years, however I believe it would be more accurate to say, that men are just more confident, and that women take a different approach to the problem than what men do.
The difference is likely to come from the different genders relying more heavily on different regions of the brain, with these different regions being triggered by male and female hormones. However, at this stage there is only evidence that is suggesting that this might be the cause.
It is exciting to see the progress that is being made, and hopefully we will see more investigation into this area in the future.
8/5 – Rewrote some sections and added in some additional links. KR