Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
It happens to the best of us. But men may be better at finding their way straight back to the right spot.
The Wall Street Journal caught our eye this week with mention of new research on a favorite subject of academic study at Atlantic Cities: the parking lot. Even better: a mall parking lot! Turns out such places are great for studying human cognition and spatial memory, or how we sense where we are in our surroundings, and where we left really important stuff… like the car.
Experimental psychologists have been studying this with actual shoppers in the Netherlands. Half of them reported having regular trouble remembering where they parked (so you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re realizing right now that you have no idea where you last put the Zipcar). Men, however – in this study at least – seemed to do a better job of estimating the distance to their cars and then finding them without embarrassing detours.
The researchers, who’ve published their findings in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, snagged 115 shoppers on their way out of a gardening and construction mall (we think this is Netherlandish for a Home Depot). They then spent about 10 minutes interviewing the drivers about their general parking-related forgetfulness, where they thought they had parked that day on a map, how far away they estimated the spot to be, and what kinds of tricks they used to remember the location. The researchers then followed these people back to their cars (literally, this was one of the questions in the interview: “Can we follow you to your car?”).
Women needed to take detours more frequently than men. They were also more likely to verbally describe where they had parked using landmarks, instead of metric distances. And men were better at estimating their parking spot on a map, as well as mentally calculating the distance to it.
"Overall, participants were fairly good in finding back their car," the researchers write. So you should take some solace in that. Or maybe not. "Only 14 percent made a substantial detour, most of them women."
Here, one poor sap in the study (we’re not told if it’s a man or a woman) takes a lengthy detour to find the car in this 431-space lot:
This image leaves us wondering what would happen in a really cognitively challenging parking lot like this:
The authors don’t offer a theory for why men and women would tap into spatial memory differently, although we suspect that you will provide your own explanation anyway.