Land of the lost

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EDMONTON, Alberta – Men may think they have a better sense of direction, but women are actually better at getting where they’re going.

A University of Alberta psychology professor has found that men tend to be more confident about their sense of direction than women. However, when actual way finding performance is observed, women are equally competent and sometimes more deliberate.

Are you born with it? Researcher Ed Cornell said his findings provoke some interesting challenges to one of the oldest beliefs about human way finding – that some people have a natural ability that distinguishes them from others.

“It is memories of way-finding attempts – episodes of getting lost or discovering a great shortcut – that builds people’s beliefs about their sense of direction,” he said.

How good are you? Cornell first asked subjects to rate their own sense of direction.

This was followed up with observations in real world environments to determine whether there was a correlation between the way people feel about their sense of direction and their ability to find their way.

Real world. Cornell said the new findings showed there was a small to moderate correlation between what people thought their sense of direction was like and their actual way finding performance.

The experiments assessed participants’ accuracy of reversing their route after being led through unfamiliar territory, their speed at successfully taking detours and making short cuts, and their ability to localize rooms within a complex of similar buildings.

So what? Cornell said the findings suggest a simple inexpensive system for predicting someone’s way finding performance before selecting them as a trail or expedition leader.

Cornell said, for example, military personnel who have effectively used way-finding strategies in the past attribute their success to a good sense of direction.

In fact, their strategies are what is useful for scouting out terrain in unfamiliar or obscure environments.

On the map. Another useful application of his findings is for map makers.

Cornell said cartographers are interested in whether people are confident that they are correctly oriented in the environment. People often prefer verbal directions rather than try to match their understanding of the lay out of things to the conventions of maps.

Cornell is a specialist researcher in the field of way finding and developing techniques for search and rescue.

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