Lost in the supermarket

According to a study reported by the Economist, women have a better sense of direction than men, at least in the supermarket.

Dr New used the market to test two hypotheses. The first was that women remember the locations of food resources more accurately than men do. The second was that the more nutritionally valuable a resource is, the more accurately its location will be remembered.

To prove these conjectures he recruited 41 women and 45 men and led each of them individually on a merry dance around the chosen market. In the course of this peregrination, each participant visited six of the 90 food stalls in the market. At each of those stalls, participants were given a piece of food to eat. They were asked their preference for the taste of the food, how often they ate that food in normal life, how attractive they found the stall and how often they had made purchases from that stall in the past. After visiting all six stalls, they were taken to the centre of the market and asked to point toward those stalls, one at a time, using an arrow on a dial. In addition, they were asked to rate their own sense of direction.

On average, women were 9° more accurate than men at pointing to each stall—a significant deviation if you have to walk some distance to get to a place. This was not because those women had more experience of visiting the market than the men had. Nor did the women rate themselves as having a better sense of direction—indeed the men rated their own navigating skills more highly.

Dr New suggests that these results show women are better than men at the particular task of relocating sources of food. That contrasts with the idea that men are better at navigation in general. In other words, women’s minds are specialised for their ancestral task of gathering the sort of food that cannot run away.

That such food is in a different mental category from the one occupied by general landmarks was suggested by the answer to the second hypothesis. The higher the calorific value of the food sold by a stall, the more accurately Dr New’s volunteers were able to point towards it. And that result applied to both sexes, though women still did better than men.

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