Anthropology Behaviour and Psychology

Take the Second Left – Men Are Better at Navigating


It’s a long-held belief, particularly among men, that they are better navigators. Thanks to researchers at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Neuroscience, it’s been proven to be true.

The study found that during the navigation tasks they set, Carl Pintzka said of men:

They quite simply got to their destination faster.

The study was comprised of 18 men and 18 women and were given the task of navigating their way around a virtual maze. Throughout, they were also instructed to find specific objects or reach a certain destination.

The task used 3D goggles and a joystick to allow the participants to navigate the maze. They were given an hour to learn it’s layout before the test began. Once it began the participants were presented with 45 tasks, each of which they had 30 seconds to complete. An example task was “to find the yellow car” from different starting points.

Pintzka found that men were able to solve 50% more of the tasks than the woman and that they used a general sense of cardinal directions (North, East, South and West) to find their way.

Women tend to navigate based on landmarks and fixed locations, for example “go past the post office and take the second left until you reach the library and then continue on until you see…”. This method of navigating breaks down if the post office is no longer there or if a road is blocked.

The men’s general directions were much more flexible as they weren’t based on fixed routes. If they encounter a blocked road, they’ll just go around it, continuing in the same general direction. Interestingly, when the women were given a testosterone boosting substance, their ability to orient themselves improved.

But, except for some minor differences in size, men and women’s brains are physically identical – so what is the cause of this difference?

While our brains may be the same, men and women use different areas of the brain when completing the same tasks.

There are evolutionary reasons for our differing abilities. Before the advent of farming, men were hunters. They would track animals over the course of days and would end up 30+ miles from home. Men developed a  keen sense of direction so that they could find their way home after such long journeys.

Women were gatherers and incredibly skilled at finding things in a close vicinity. This is why women can find something in the house in seconds that may take a man 20 or 30 minutes to find.

Pintzka summarised this as:

In simple terms, women are faster at finding things in the house, and men are faster at finding the house.

Past studies have also shown that men are better at focusing intently on a single task, while women are much more skilled at multi-tasking. This increased ability to focus on a single task could have been a contributing factor to Pintzka’s findings and to the men’s success. Dr Ragini Verma of University of Pennsylvania performed MRI scans of 949 men and women and found:

The research shows that if women and men are given a task that involves both logical thinking and intuitive thinking, women will do it better – they are better at connecting the left and the right sides of the brain. If you have an instant action to be performed and you need to do it now, male brains are more attuned to it because the front-back action is more intensely connected. The intense activity in the cerebellum means men would be better at learning to ride a bike, learning to swim, reading maps.

The same study also found women’s brains are better designed to socialise in busy situations as the connections in the brain boosted their ability to remember names, faces and information about the people they had met.

I’m always fascinated by these types of studies that highlight the differences between the way men and women think and behave. We should both acknowledge and embrace the differences between men and women, but without encouraging assumption or discrimination.

Creating standardised situations, such as schooling, which are based on the idea that men and women think in the same way is ineffective and reduces potential performance.

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