If there is one thing that behavioral psychologists have always been fascinated by, it’s the differences between men and women, and the different ways that they approach similar tasks. Over the years, for example, a significant amount of research has indicated that men and women perform differently when solving spatial recognition and navigation problems. In general, men do better than women, and this is not limited to humans; in many mammals, males outperform females on navigational tasks.
So it is not an example of misogyny or male chauvinism for researchers to conduct an experiment pitting men against women in a very real-world spatial recognition and navigation problem – finding their cars in a large, crowded parking lot.
No cars were lost forever as the result of this experiment
The psychologists (two men and two women, in case you were wondering) who put this “men are better at spatial navigation tasks than women” premise to the test did so in a large parking lot outside a Dutch shopping mall. They picked 115 shoppers (59 men and 56 women) at random as they were emerging from the mall, and among those who volunteered, spent a few minutes interviewing them about their general parking lot behavior. The questions included whether they are usually pretty good at finding their cars again, and whether they had any particular tricks that they use to remember its location. Then they asked each of the men and women to look at a map of the parking lot, estimate where their car was on that map, and then estimate how far away they thought it was. The last question asked was, “Can we follow you to your car?”
The results of this study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, indicate that although both sexes managed to find their cars, the men used very different strategies when doing so than the women did. When describing where they thought their cars were, the men tended to speak in terms of distances, whereas the women spoke in terms of physical landmarks they remembered.
And both strategies seemed to have worked, because sooner or later everyone found their cars. But not everyone took the most direct route to them. As expected (again, based on previous research, not on misogyny) the men found their cars more quickly, and using the most direct routes. They were also better at “pre-locating” where their cars were on a map. But 14% of the study participants, most of them women, took substantial detours trying to locate the spot where they’d left their cars.
What does all this mean?
Well, according to the researchers at least, it doesn’t mean that the strategies used by the men were “better” than those used by the women, only that they were different. The Dutch research reinforces in a real-life situation what other researchers had found in experiments performed in laboratories. In one previous study, psychologists found that men and women tended to use different cues when solving spatial problems.
The women tended to rely on an object’s or an environment’s visual features when performing the tasks, while the men could use visual cues, but in addition used more distance- and location-specific information. Put in terms of the parking lot problem, the men tended to rely on a feeling of which direction they felt that their car was parked, and about how far it was, whereas the women relied more heavily on what the car was parked near, and what objects or landmarks they were likely to encounter on their way back to it.
In this previous study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in England, the researchers were able to determine that both men and women were equally adept at recognizing and remembering visual features and in using them to solve spatial problems. But in their experiments the men were superior at remembering spatial locations in which no visual features were of use when solving the problem. Given tasks that eliminated one or the other of these types of cues, the men showed no preference for one solving strategy over the other. If visual cues were removed from the equation, they switched to a strategy using purely spatial information, and managed to perform the tasks successfully. When the visual cues were not present and only spatial information could be used, the women tended not to perform as well on tasks that required purely navigational or spatial skills.
So in the end we still don’t know what these findings mean, except what we suspected already. That is, that in many ways men and women are different, and that they use different skills when approaching the same problems. And vive la différence.