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.