Are Men or Women Better Navigators?

men and women better directions
Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara are trying to answer the ages-old question: Are men or women better at directions? Seth K. Hughes/Getty Images

The next time you're exploring an unfamiliar city with a member of the opposite sex, pay attention to how each of you relate to your surroundings. That's because according to a study published in the May 2018 issue of the journal Memory & Cognition, men and women use very different navigation strategies.

That probably doesn't come as much of a surprise, especially if you've ever been, well, in a car with a man who won't ask for directions. But now there seems to be evidence to back up why men and women navigate roads differently. The study, out of the department of psychological and brain sciences at University of California, Santa Barbara, found that men are more likely to take shortcuts, while women are more likely to wander. The study's lead author, Alexander Boone, provided us with a little more insight.


"[The study] was inspired by a lingering open question that we had the means and opportunity to ask," he said via email. "As a field, we've known for a while that there are differences in what people say that they do while navigating, but no one had yet done the proper study to show it objectively."

So Boone and his team set out to answer that question. Their study consisted of two experiments and a survey, using University of California, Santa Barbara undergraduate students as subjects. The first experiment placed subjects in a virtual reality maze with various objects to serve as landmarks (think chair, duck, plant, soccer ball, car, etc.). They were directed to travel through the maze on a particular path to become familiar with it, and then navigate back to specific objects they'd passed.

The second experiment, using a different group of test subjects, was much like the first, except the maze also contained background landmarks such as trees and mountains, to see if their presence helped the subjects process and navigate the space any easier.

What both experiments demonstrated is that the men were more likely to use their surroundings (those trees and mountains) to identify and use shortcuts, while the women were more likely to wander (meaning repeating areas of the route) until they found the correct route. Because men used shortcuts, they also tended to arrive at the destination faster than the women.

If "virtual maze" sounds a bit like a video game, that's no accident. The self-reported part of the experiment asked the participants if they played video games and how often. We wondered if there was a correlation between the individuals who played video games performing better in the study.

"That's an interesting question. In looking at the data, it seems like males did better regardless of [their] gaming experience," Boone said. "But remember, these are overlapping distributions. That means some of the best navigators had little video game experience and some of the people that took fewer shortcuts also had the most gaming experience."

So what's next for Boone and the information he and his researcher's gathered? For now, he says, it's basic research level information. "There are a lot of open questions still left to look at before we can get to applied work-like training paradigms," he said. "First and foremost, we need to know if this same effect is seen in the real world, which is the subject of some research in our lab right now."

The study complements Boone's other research on spatial relations and he hopes it will lead to a greater understanding of these differences.