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Faculty Sponsor

Dr. Carol Lawton


Department of Psychology

University Affiliation

Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne


Research has indicated that that men and women utilize different strategies in wayfinding, with men using more directional information and women using more positional information (Barkley & Gabriel, 2007; Lawton, 2010; Sandstrom, Kaufman, & Huettel, 1998). In the current research, the relationship between navigational strategies and brain organization was examined, using handedness as an indirect measure of brain lateralization. Specifically, we examined how handedness, sex, and the use of color cues in navigating a virtual environment were related. Because women who are strongly right-handed tend to perform more poorly than moderately right-handed women on mental rotations (Annett, 1992; Casey, 1996), it was predicted that strongly right-handed women would be more reliant on the color cues while navigating the virtual environment than would moderately right-handed women. We predicted no effect of handedness for men.

Participants (71 male and 113 female right-handed undergraduate students) were first asked to complete a self-report inventory of hand preference. They were then exposed to a virtual building in which the walls were either gray, or “painted” with a gradation of colors. They were told to navigate from a landmark on one side of the building to a landmark on the other side of the building until they had completed two successive trials in less than 1 minute. After that, the participants were asked to reverse the path, starting at the “ending” landmark and navigating back to the original “starting” landmark on 5 test trials. The mean path distance was calculated for the 5 test trials for each participant.

There was a significant interaction between sex, handedness, and building color. Women who were strongly right-handed had longer mean path distances than did women who were moderately right-handed in the color building, but there was no significant difference between the two groups of women in the gray building. Men’s performance was not affected by building color or handedness.

These results suggest that strongly right-handed women are less reliant upon their right hemisphere (which is associated with spatial functioning) than are men or moderately right-handed women. Instead, it seems like strongly right-handed women may rely more on the left hemisphere, which controls verbal and analytic skills. This includes the use of color cues to indicate where the participant needs to turn in order to reach the target landmark. Because the color cues would be different when the path is reversed, participants who rely more on color cues as a wayfinding aid would have a more difficult time navigating back to the target landmark than participants who may use a cognitive map for wayfinding. Therefore, findings indicate that brain organization is more related to differences in wayfinding strategies for women than for men.


Psychology | Social and Behavioral Sciences

Sex, Handedness, and Use of Visual Cues for Wayfinding in a Virtual Environment

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