Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Girlfriend, Where’s My Car?

By Tim Hannan

Men and women use different strategies to find their car, with different degrees of success.

For some, locating one’s vehicle in the car park of a shopping centre is quite a straightforward process that follows an internalised spatial map. For others, however, it is often a hesitant venture into an unfamiliar maze characterised by random wandering in a manner reminiscent of a Seinfeld episode. A recent study by a group of Dutch researchers found that difficulties in locating one’s car are surprisingly common, and added the intriguing finding that men and women may use quite different strategies, with varying degrees of success.

The study by Utrecht University’s Albert Postma and his colleagues, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, examined the strategies that men and women used to locate their car in the parking area of a large shopping centre. About 50% of the 115 participants admitted to occasional or frequent difficulties finding their car, and most claimed to employ one or more deliberate strategies to facilitate remembering the location, such as estimating the distance to the car park exit or noticing landmarks.

Most participants located their cars quickly but as many as 14% made a marked detour on the way, with most of these wanderers being women. The researchers also noted that women were on average less accurate than men when asked to estimate from memory the distance from the centre exit to their parked car, even though both sexes were similar in estimating the distance to a visible object.

Differences between the sexes were also found in the location strategies employed: 24% of the male participants used judgements of distance in metric terms to locate their cars, while only 1% women reported doing so. In contrast 38% of female participants reported a reliance on their recall of previously seen landmarks, a strategy reportedly employed by only 15% of men.

Most participants used multiple strategies, the most popular being parking near the entrance (62%) or another favourite spot (19%), or retracing the route taken on entering the shopping centre (56%).

The study raises questions about the processes involved in spatial memory, which is the cognitive system enabling us to learn and remember the location of previously encountered objects and to find our way from one place to another. It is thought that on relatively simple spatial tasks this system operates automatically: we have a sense about which way to go based on automatic coding of spatial information during the learning experience. In more complex cases, such as a recalling a route with many turns or parking in an unfamiliar car park, a more concentrated effort is needed to learn and retain the spatial information.

The study of sex differences in cognitive functions has long been a messy and controversial business, with past findings (e.g. that men are better at maths, or that women better at communication) being either disputed or argued to reflect societal expectations and biases during development. However, the finding that males perform better on a variety of spatial tasks than females has proven quite reliable and robust, and is generally assumed to reflect differences in brain development and function.

Sex differences in spatial abilities have been observed in a number of animal species, and correlated with sex differences in the size of the hippocampus, a region in the temporal lobe that is central to laying down new memories. Further support for the biological explanation comes from fossil evidence of early humans suggesting that males were more active in searching their local environment than women, leading to the proposal that the evolutionary advantage of a larger hippocampus in the male continues to subserve a sex difference in spatial skills.

While the differences between men and women in the Dutch study are relatively small, the findings regarding strategy use, distance estimation and general spatial memory adds to the body of knowledge about sex differences in cognitive systems – and inspires further discussion about who should be responsible for parking the car.

Tim Hannan is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the President of the Australian Psychological Society.