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Are men really better navigators than women? Surprising study results

[Jan. 22, 2024: JD Shavit, The Brighter Side of News]

According to this research, any observed differences in wayfinding abilities between males and females may not be a result of natural selection. (Credit: Creative Commons)

The long-standing belief that men are inherently better navigators than women has been a widely accepted notion in Western thinking. However, a recent comprehensive study is casting doubt on this assumption.

According to this research, any observed differences in wayfinding abilities between males and females may not be a result of natural selection. In other words, men may not have evolved to be superior navigators, challenging the conventional wisdom.


Spatial cognition, the mental process that allows individuals to perceive and navigate their environment, has been the subject of extensive research. Hundreds of studies and several meta-analyses have seemingly supported the idea that males consistently outperform females in various spatial tasks.

This belief has been particularly prevalent in the field of evolutionary psychology, which has long been preoccupied with investigating cognitive sex differences.


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The prevailing explanation for these differences is the sex-specific adaptation hypothesis. This theory draws comparisons to other species, particularly those where males have larger home ranges, which are the areas an animal covers during its daily activities. It suggests that in species where males have larger home ranges than females, there is a greater selection pressure for males to develop superior wayfinding skills.

To put this hypothesis to the test, researchers from various institutions in the United States conducted a comprehensive study. They examined the wayfinding abilities of 21 different species, including humans, and compared the sizes of their home ranges.


Among the diverse species included in the study were Asian small-clawed otters, brilliant-thighed poison frogs, Californian mice, chimpanzees, rats, horses, giant pandas, and various species of voles. The goal was to determine whether there was a correlation between the size of an animal's home range and its navigational skills, thus providing support for the sex-specific adaptation hypothesis.

Phylogeny of the species used in the comparative analysis. The numbers at the bifurcations are estimated divergence times in millions of years. The branch lengths are not drawn to scale. (CREDIT: Royal Society Open Science)

However, the results of the study challenged this hypothesis. The researchers found very little evidence of sex differences in home range size that correlated with navigational abilities across the species studied. This finding raises significant questions about the assumption that evolution has favored males as superior navigators due to larger home ranges.


The authors of the study noted, "Over the past half-century, significant resources have gone into testing the sex-specific adaptation hypothesis as an explanation for sex differences in navigation abilities. In a previous meta-analysis, we found the evidence was weak, and in this paper with an expanded dataset, we again find little evidence supporting the sex-specific adaptation hypothesis."

Sex differences in home range and spatial navigation across species. (a) Forest plot. (b) Scatterplot. The trendlines were generated using the subsistence data only for humans. (CREDIT: Royal Society Open Science)

The research highlights the complexity of explaining sex differences in behavior or performance. Such differences can emerge from biological or cultural factors, neither of which are always rooted in evolutionary history. The brain's remarkable plasticity, its ability to restructure and adapt, is often overlooked in these discussions.


One key consideration is that evolutionary psychologists typically label a trait as innate if it is culturally universal. However, this does not hold true for spatial skills. The authors point out that "recent evidence in subsistence populations strongly suggests that sex difference in spatial navigation in humans is not a cultural universal. Rather, it disappears in cultures where males and females have similar ranging behavior."

Statistical power analysis. Data were simulated from a bivariate normal distribution using the means and standard deviations of the home range and spatial ability sex difference indices from the 21 species, using the subsistence value for humans, and a sequence of correlations ranging from 0 to 1 in 0.01 increments. (CREDIT: Royal Society Open Science)

In light of these findings, the authors recommend that future research on sex differences in navigation should shift its focus towards the role of socialization and culture, rather than exclusively attributing these differences to evolutionary genetic factors.


The study, challenging the conventional wisdom on male superiority in navigation, was published in the Royal Society Open Science. These findings encourage further exploration of the multifaceted factors that contribute to differences in wayfinding abilities between the sexes, shedding new light on this long-debated topic.

For more science news stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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