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A new study finds big cross-cultural differences in spatial descriptions.

One of the charms of Europe is the irregular geography of its city streets. Meanwhile across the Atlantic many major American cities follow a fairly rigid (albeit intuitive) grid system. The local differences echo the broader approaches to land division there and here. While many boundaries in the Old World conform to the curves of nature, places in the United States generally follow a rectangular system imposed, in large part, by the Public Land Survey.

It stands to reason that these different environments would leave distinct impressions on their respective residents. If the place you live in looks like a map, logic suggests you'll start to discuss it like one. Likewise, if the place you live in has a unique layout, you'll need more precise identifiers to describe it.

That's the idea at the heart of a study set to appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology. An international team of psychologists, led by Alycia Hund of Illinois State University, recruited students from the Midwest United States and the Netherlands to give directions around a fictional neighborhood. The results suggest that the "structure of the physical environment also shapes wayfinding processes," Hund and company report.

In simpler terms: where we live determines how we give directions.

The researchers brought test participants into a lab and presented them with a map of a small district containing 17 landmarks and 29 streets. These wayfinders were then assigned a starting point and a destination and asked to provide directions to someone navigating the area. Half the time they were told the navigator was driving; the other half they were told the navigator was just looking at a map.

The different navigator conditions were meant to encourage different types of directions. Hund and colleagues believed wayfinders would offer drivers more first-person descriptions (including landmarks) and would offer map-readers more third-person descriptions (including street names and cardinal directions).

These conditions did have some impact, but what really influenced the type of directions was the culture of the wayfinder. Americans were far more likely, across all tests, to give navigators a street name or a cardinal direction (i.e. north, east, south, or west). Dutch wayfinders, on the other hand, provided far more landmarks and left-right turn-descriptors.

Hund's team believes this behavior is a direct result of the environments the wayfinders inhabit:

These findings generally are consistent with reliance on unique landmarks when layouts and vistas are irregular (as in much of Europe) in contrast to reliance on street names (and numbering) when layouts and labeling are more regular (as in the Midwestern United States).

The researchers note that many of the Dutch wayfinders became frustrated when asked to give map-readers directions. "They realized there might be a more effective way of describing the route on the map, but never came up with the idea to switch from left-right descriptors to cardinal terms," Hund and company write. They suppose the Dutch would have improved considerably if given enough time to convert cardinal directions into relative terms — equating "east" with "right," for instance.

A glance at the previous literature suggests that a person's wayfinding abilities may be governed first by general culture and next by local environment. In one study that compared the spatial knowledge of Americans with that of British who live in a grid-like town, the Americans still demonstrated higher overall familiarity with a grid. But in another test of Americans from different parts of the country, Midwesterners used cardinal directions more than people from the Northeast.

The researchers themselves don't propose this two-layered theory (here's hoping they eventually test it). Neither do they explicitly consider the role that car dependency might play in the results — except to point out that American interstates use cardinal directions, like I-95 North. But it seems very possible that one reason Americans come to view directions on the map-based format is because they're often guided by an in-car G.P.S. system, whereas the Dutch, whose streets are made for walking, would necessarily use more mental landmarks to find the way.

Top image: Pres Panayotov/Shutterstock.com

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