The verdict is in. Men really are better navigators than women – at least, according to a report published by Norwegian neuroscientists in 2015.
The scientists gave a group of men and women a joystick and 3D goggles and asked them to find their way out of a virtual maze. Female participants took longer to orientate themselves, whereas men seemed to have a more effective sense of direction.
According to the study’s lead author: “They quite simply got to their destination faster.”
It’s contentious territory, but as wayfinding designers it’s important to understand that different people navigate in different ways.
The Norwegian neuroscientists concluded that men were more likely to use a “world-centred” wayfinding strategy, where they move in the general direction of a destination using a cognitive map and cardinal directions.
Women, by contrast, are more likely to use an “ego-centric” strategy, which means they rely on remembering landmarks to find their way, and are more reliant on knowing their starting point.
The scientists even had a stab at explaining why this is so in an interview with The Huffington Post: “In ancient times, men were hunters and women were gatherers. Therefore, our brains probably evolved differently. In simple terms, women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house.”
The truth is our ability to navigate remains something of a mystery. Some studies show that men use their hippocampus – the part of the brain that helps us with cardinal directions – more than women.
Others indicate that higher testosterone levels equate to better wayfinding abilities.
There’s even a theory that we all have a tiny deposit of a magnetic material called magnetite just behind our noses, which conveniently acts like the needle of a compass.
As for map reading, last year a small study published in Psychological Science found that women can read maps just as well as men – especially if the maps show tiny human figures! When women are told how hopeless they are at map reading, they tend to underperform. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to the study.