Our Common Navigational Mistakes

Reading how some animals are able to “instinctively solve navigational problems” that baffle us humans, I was reminded of Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic, writing on the most common navigational mistakes we all make.

In [a recent study] 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.” […]

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,” […] “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.

If this topic interests you, Vanderbilt writes about such topics on his blog, How We Drive. You may also be interested in a video interview with Vanderbilt that looks like it will be excellent.