Science Watch

Many Americans might be surprised to find out that Chicago is at the same latitude as Rome. And that Orlando, Fla., is 4 degrees south of Tijuana, Mexico.

Their surprise likely stems from a mental bias many North Americans hold, placing southern European cities on a line with cities in the southern United States and all of the United States north of all of Mexico. According to a line of research by University of Alberta psychologists Alinda Friedman, PhD, and Norman Brown, PhD, people maintain many such biases about geography.

In a series of studies designed to examine how people learn geography and, more generally, how they organize complex knowledge, the researchers find that people develop mental models of the world--separating continents, countries and cities into regions and subregions that relate to each other in specific ways. Any biases in those models remain until people are given new information that forces them to see the error of their ways. For example, people will continue to place southern European cities on a line with cities in the southern United States until they learn the true latitudes of a few key cities and see that, in fact, southern Europe is further north than the southern United States.

In fact, when it comes to integrating new information into an already complex knowledge base, such as the geographical location of cities, people strike a balance between two tendencies, the researchers conclude in this month's Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition (JEP:LMC). With the first, "cognitive coherence," people try to keep their knowledge base free of contradictions. With the second, "inertia," people tend to resist changing their knowledge base unless it is necessary to maintain coherence.

In the context of geography, cognitive coherence is illustrated by the example of a person who thinks that because the U.S. is basically north of Mexico, that all of the U.S. is north of all of Mexico. Inertia keeps them attached to that belief until new information--that Tijuana, Mexico, for example, is at 33 degrees latitude and that Orlando, Fla. is at 29 degrees latitude, forces them to alter their mental model so that the new information will fit into it, and allows for cognitive coherence on a new basis.

"So coherence wins if the two [tendencies] are opposed," says Friedman.

Their findings demonstrate one way that people revise their knowledge after they learn new things about the world, says Friedman. And they may have implications for education--not just in geography but other subjects that rely on a complex knowledge base, says Brown.

"We're demonstrating," says Friedman, "that people's knowledge base is malleable using very little information--two key latitudes in the example of geography--once we know something about how they have mentally linked different pieces of information."

Maintaining coherence

In their studies, Friedman and Brown use a technique called "seeding" to test how people update their knowledge base after receiving new information: They first remind study participants how latitudes work and then ask them to estimate the latitudes of cities around the world. Then they tell them the actual latitudes of two select cities--these latitudes are the "seeds"--and ask participants to estimate the latitudes of all the cities again.

In an earlier series of experiments, published in the May Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (JEP:G), their main finding was that people group cities into psychologically powerful regions and subregions that don't overlap and that are linked to each other in specific ways. For example, their Canadian-born study participants placed Canadian cities around the same latitudes as northern European cities and southern U.S. cities around the same latitudes as southern European cities.

In addition, though they placed southern European cities north of North African cities, they placed both sets of cities too far south. One intriguing finding was that when they found out the true latitude of the North African city Tunis, they moved both North African and southern European cities northward. In contrast, when they found out the true latitude of the southern European city Lisbon, they moved southern European cities north, but kept North African cities where they'd originally placed them.

To discover why this pattern occurred, the researchers focused their JEP:LMC studies on two other geographical regions that are related to each other in the same way as southern Europe and North Africa: the southern United States and Mexico. People tend to believe cities in both regions are further south than they really are.

In the first of two studies discussed in the JEP:LMC article, 120 Canadian-born participants estimated the latitudes of cities in Canada, the United States and Mexico. Then, after learning the actual latitudes of two out of four possible seed cities--San Diego and Tijuana, both at 33 degrees latitude, and Orlando and Chihuahua, both at 29 degrees latitude--they re-estimated the latitudes of all the cities.

As expected, when participants learned the true latitudes of the Mexican cities, which were farther north than people's original estimates of the southern U.S. cities, they shifted their estimates of the latitudes of all Mexican cities northward along with the latitudes of all the southern U.S. cities. But, in contrast to the earlier study, they also shifted the Mexican cities northward when they learned the true latitudes of the southern U.S. cities.

This finding provides evidence that people tend to maintain their original beliefs unless logic forces them to change, say Friedman and Brown. Learning that the latitudes of the southern European cities were further north than expected did not disrupt the coherence of people's mental model that southern Europe is north of North Africa. And, by assuming the Mediterranean Sea is wider than they originally thought, they could use it as a buffer to avoid having to also adjust the latitudes of the North African cities. But because the southern U.S. and Mexico are attached, it only makes sense that if cities in the southern U.S. move north, so must cities in Mexico.

Distant but coordinated

In a second experiment, Friedman and Brown examined how seeds would affect latitude estimates for distant regions--namely those separated by the Atlantic Ocean. The JEP:G article suggested that Canadians tend to align Canadian cities with northern European cities (for example, Winnipeg and Oslo, Norway) and southern U.S. cities with Mediterranean Europe (for example, Atlanta and Rome).

The researchers wanted to see if the psychological link between these regions is so strong that if people learned that a region on one side of the ocean had to shift northward they would automatically shift a corresponding region on the other side of the ocean northward as well.

It is. Learning the actual latitudes of cities in one continent influenced people's estimates for latitudes in the other.

"The existence of a body of water between Europe and North America did not prevent observers from adjusting their estimates of one region based on learning new information about the other," write Friedman and Brown.

Interestingly, in all their studies, the researchers find that distant but psychologically uncoordinated regions don't necessarily move together. For example, learning the latitudes of Mexican cities caused the latitudes of southern U.S. cities to move northward, but barely affected latitude estimates for cities in Canada.

Implications for education

The findings point to the value of a "key fact" approach to education, says Brown, who developed the approach through earlier research with Carnegie Mellon University's Robert Siegler, PhD. In such an approach, teachers use what they know about children's biases in various subjects about a given topic and provide them with specific numerical information to feed the knowledge base and help counteract distortions in their beliefs.

In the case of geography, that might mean teaching children general relations between geographical regions and then providing them with specific latitudes for key cities. The numbers would work to mitigate certain biases people tend to develop, such as the assumption that all South American locations are due south of North America.

Brown and Friedman are beginning a line of research that will look at geography from a developmental perspective--examining geographical knowledge and the influence of seeds starting with children as young as 7. In addition, along with their colleagues Dennis Kerkman, PhD, and David Stea, PhD, at Southwest Texas State University, they're beginning to examine whether their findings hold up in people from different countries.

"We don't want to boil this down to the idea that people don't know exact latitudes and longitudes," says Friedman. "That's really true, of course, but it's not the point. The point is that they do have very accurate categorical knowledge. They know the right ordinal positions of the regions. But that knowledge oversimplifies the situation, and, as a result, you can have very biased estimates."

This article is part of the Monitor's "Science Watch" series, which reports news from APA's journals.