The most common navigational mistakes we all make.

How we get from here to there.
April 1 2010 4:26 PM

San Diego Is East of Reno?

The most common navigational mistakes we all make.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Imagine two cities, one to the north of where you live and one an equal distance to the south. Should it take longer to drive to the northern city than to the southern one? Of course not. But evidence suggests we subtly believe that going north is more time-intensive than going south.

In this recent study by Leif Nelson and Joseph Simmons in the Journal of Marketing Research, a number of subjects were asked to estimate the travel time for a northbound versus southbound bird. The majority of respondents believed traveling north from the equator would take longer than the reverse.

What was going on, the authors speculated, was that subjects were supplanting map-based metaphors for the actual experience of travel. "A lifetime of exposure to the metaphoric link between cardinal direction and vertical position," they write, "may cause people to associate northbound travel with uphill travel." Or, as they quote Treebeard in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: "I always like going south. Somehow… it feels like going downhill."

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This little effect, the study found, has a number of potential implications. People were more likely to think it was cheaper to ship things to southern destinations than northern destinations, and the directional "framing" in retail advertisements— i.e., was the destination north or south of some other landmark—influenced potential shopping decisions (with "south" winning out). Curiously, when the maps in the study were inverted, showing northern destinations to be below southern destinations, the estimated price differential for shipping vanished. (When I asked Nelson whether the overall effect would vary in the Southern Hemisphere, he noted that the "first thing to recognize is that in the southern hemisphere maps are still oriented such that north is to the top of the page.")

This striking study reminds us of an essential, if often underappreciated, truth about transportation: Our ideas about where and how to travel, what routes to use and how long they will take, are all prone to subtle distortions that may ultimately shape our decisions about where to go and why. As geographer Colin Ellard notes in his book You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall,"unlike other animals, which are tightly anchored, body to ground, fixed to the earth with a sureness of footing than can be almost impossible to sunder, human beings seem preternaturally prone to a kind of spatial flight of fancy in which our minds sculpt physical space to suit our needs."

The north-south imbalance is just one of any number of ways we rearrange objective time and space in our heads. There are the famous examples of geographical distortion, for example, in which people routinely assume that Rome is farther south than Philadelphia or that San Diego is west of Reno (when in both cases the opposite is true). Or take a simple trip into town: Studies have found that people tend to find the inbound trip to be shorter than the outbound trip, while a journey down a street with more intersections will seem to be longer than one with fewer (and not simply because of traffic lights).

Our state of mind on any trip can influence not just our perceptions of time but of geography itself. As Dennis Proffit, et al., write in the wonderfully titled study "Seeing Mountains in Mole Hills," in Psychological Science, "hills appear steeper when we are fatigued, encumbered by a heavy backpack, out of shape, old and in declining health"—and this is not some vague feeling, but an actual shift in our estimates of degrees of inclination. Transit planners have a rule of thumb that waiting for transit seems to take three times as long as travel itself. And then, looming over everything, is Vierordt's Law, which, applied to commuting, roughly states: People will mentally lengthen short commutes and shorten long commutes.

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