In Brief

Do you think you have a bad sense of direction? You're probably right. People's beliefs about their sense of direction usually predict how well they navigate, according to a study that appeared in the May Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition (Vol. 32, No. 3).

Previous research has suggested that, for people's navigational systems to work well, they have to integrate two different directional or "heading" systems:

Egocentric, or personal, direction. Where they are in relation to external objects such as a door or a building.

Allocentric, or external, direction. Where they are in relation to fixed environmental points such as north, south, east or west. This system is most closely linked to what's generally referred to as "sense of direction."

To learn more about how people's navigational systems work, Boston College psychology professor Jeanne Sholl, PhD, and colleagues focused on allocentric direction in a study with undergraduates involving a familiar environment on the Boston College campus. The test was designed to see how well participants tracked and remembered--or coded--allocentric direction. Since research suggests that people orient themselves from the closest environment outward--in other words, room, apartment, building, street and beyond--the challenge would be in distinguishing current allocentric from a remembered allocentric direction.

In the study, participants tried to determine the direction of 40 pictures taken from different locations and allocentric directions on campus. Participants began by looking out the window to orient themselves to the building's position in the larger campus environment. They then sat in a swivel chair in front of a computer. The computer was positioned so that each participant faced north, south, west or east. Researchers showed participants one of the campus pictures on the computer screen and asked them to decide which direction the photographer was facing and then to turn in that direction. For instance, if the photo's direction was east, but the student was facing north, he or she would turn right. If the student was facing east, he or she would not turn.

This required students to remember the familiar scene and place themselves within it. The authors hypothesized that the participants should have stored this familiar scene in memory along with their body's allocentric direction when viewing the scene, enabling them to re-retrieve the direction just by viewing the pictures. They found that there was wide variability in the students' ability to do the task.

After the experiment, participants filled out a survey asking them to rate their sense of direction. Generally, students who rated it as bad performed poorly, and students who rated it as good did well. Sholl says this suggests that self-attributions about sense of direction are related to the effectiveness with which allocentric heading is computed and stored when navigating the environment. Moreover, all participants had the most difficulty performing the task when the picture's direction was 180 degrees from the direction they were facing, indicating that a person's actual allocentric direction affects how easily they can retrieve stored allocentric directions, she explains. Sholl and her team plan to study the system further--particularly why some people's systems do not function well.