San Diego Is East of Reno?

The most common navigational mistakes we all make.

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.”

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.

There are a number of reasons for these sorts of misperceptions. Psychologist Barbara Tversky notes that one problem is “schematization”: The simple act of trying to organize our perceptions of geographic reality is likely to produce errors. When, for example, people are shown maps of the Western Hemisphere on which North and South America appear more closely aligned than they really are, people nevertheless report the map to be correct. According to Tversky, the act of “relating figures to one another draws them closer in alignment in memory than they actually are.” Our memory that North and South America are roughly aligned on a map confounds our ability to understand their true locations.

Another problem is that our concept of geography often comes from both maps and personal experience (which helps us build “mental maps”), and the process of combining these two types of information can throw things off as well. When we are asked to judge the distance to a landmark from a more anonymous building, and vice versa, we tend to estimate a shorter distance when we’re headed for—and not away from—the Eiffel Tower. The reason, suggests Vanderbilt University psychology professor Tim McNamara, is that when we think of the landmark as the destination, we are retrieving from our memory a much greater set of reference points—including our knowledge of where that landmark is in relation to many other locations—and that larger context makes the distance seem smaller than when one has little other knowledge to go on. Hence New Yorkers standing at a gas station in Queens might think the Empire State Building was closer to them than if they were standing at the top of the Empire State Building and asked to judge the distance to a gas station in Queens.

Given all this cartographic confusion, it’s no surprise our experience of travel is, well, all over the place. Back when I was a regular weekend commuter to the Catskills, I noted with interest that my trips, over time, began to seem longer. I thought the reverse might be the case—the first trip would be filled with careful scrutiny of the landscape (like a Web page downloading for the first time), which would subsequently scroll by in a blur (as I spent less time processing all the detail I had “cached”). But actually I was victim of what geographer Andrew Crompton calls the “feature accumulation hypothesis”—i.e., “the more information there is to be observed about a journey, the longer it will seem.” With each journey, I grew more familiar with the route—every last billboard, fast-food restaurant, interesting natural feature—and thus also more familiar with the time remaining. (And if anything makes time feel longer, it’s thinking about time.)

Feature accumulation is one reason people seem to inevitably overestimate the duration of a walking trip—and underestimate a trip by car. There’s simply more to see, more to take note of. (Interestingly, pedestrians with their heads down have faster-seeming journeys.) As Crompton points out, the tourist sector of Venice is roughly the same size as New York’s Central Park, but traversing the former seems to take much longer; Venice, writes Crompton, is “enlarged by its complexity.” If urban residents consistently overestimate the time it will take to get somewhere, and the residents of low-density suburbs consistently underestimate travel times (see this study, for example), it’s easy to imagine these distortions influencing the larger narrative of which environment is a more convenient place to live. Not to mention which mode of travel is best. A study in the Netherlands of car drivers, for example, found that drivers’ perceptions of how long their trip would take by public transportation tended to “deviate substantially from real travel times.” Whether this was because car drivers didn’t know, or because they don’t want to know, is an open question. Car drivers will often describe themselves as “car dependent,” even when the designation isn’t objectively true; they are instead rationalizing their chosen course of action.

For Tversky, what’s more interesting than the variety of our navigational errors is the question of why they still persist, given that humans have had long experience navigating, and that evolution might have selected “successful behaviors” through the millennia. Our navigational fallibility may persist because we don’t often face feedback about our geographical or travel-time inaccuracy—no one is there to counter your impression that the walk from Penn Station seemed to take a long time or that the bus wouldn’t have taken twice as long as driving when you factored in looking for parking. In addition, whatever errors may be present are generally not serious enough to disrupt our day—or prompt our forbears to develop superior capabilities. We get around well enough. Tversky also notes that humans aren’t alone in making navigational errors. (Hamsters, like humans, may have trouble returning to a point of origin after they’ve been blindfolded—and don’t ask me how hamsters are blindfolded.)

Eventually, technology may fix what evolution has not: The widespread adoption of GPS, now becoming more fully integrated into our daily mobile experience and offering algorithmically accurate routing and to-the-minute travel times, may yet turn us into perfectly rational commuting machines. Or perhaps we shall simply face another host of perceptual challenges, like “SatNav blindness,” or literally not seeing the road ahead for what the device is telling us.

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