Elizabeth A. Coyne
 Gender Differences in Navigational Strategies and Performance Using a Virtual Maze*
*This research was presented at the Eastern Psychological Association,(2001)  Washington, DC as part of a Faculty Mentor Panel
Background Research Question Method
Results Implications Relevant Links

Keywords:  wayfinding, cognitive map, landmarks, gender differences


Gender differences in spatial ability is a heavily researched topic in psychology.  This issue is now being studied further using virtual reality.  There are many contributing factors involved in how one finds her way.  A cognitive map helps an individual navigate through the world.  Cognitive maps allow humans to store and organize spatial information.  One can retrieve this stored information when it is necessary (O'Neill, 1991; Pedersen, 1999).  Wayfinding is term used to describe how one navigates through spatial environments (Sloan & Bernstein, 1995).  Males are noted to have superior spatial abilities, such as map reading, when compared with females.  Females rely primarily on landmarks while navigating.  Males rely more on cardinal directions (McGuiness & Sparks, 1983)

Research Question

Are there strategic gender differences involved in navigation through a virtual maze?  The strategic differences being: time, written direction, and map drawing. 




The participants in this study were 14 males, and 14 females from St. Anselm College.  All participants were enrolled in general psychology classes.


The virtual reality task used Superscape for the design.  Two mazes were designed to conduct the first part of the experiment.  The mazes were identical with the exception of five landmarks present in maze two.  The first maze contained no landmarks.  The maze was set in a large grid.  Each left and right turn was at a 90 degree angle.  Both mazes contained nine connectors and six turns.  Each participant was timed using a standard stopwatch.  After the maze was completed paper and pencil were used for the drawing of the map, and the written direction.


The participant was asked to fill out an informed consent prior to the start of the experiment.  The participant was asked to do a mock trial using virtual reality in order to practice with it before the actual experiment took place.  The experimenter showed the participant the correct path through the maze.  Then, the participant was asked to try to repeat it.  If the participant got lost at any point in the maze, it was up to her to stop and ask the experimenter to show her the correct route again.  This cycle repeated itself until the participant was able to meet criterion.  After the participant met criterion she was asked to draw a map, and write out directions of the route taken.  All results were scored according to a manual designed by the experimenter 




For trial one, males navigated through the maze significantly faster than females, F (1,28) = 2.93, p < .10.  There was a significant main effect found for trial improvement, F  (2,48) = 5.71, p < .01.  In addition to this finding there was a significant interaction effect for gender * maze, F (1,24) = 3.20, p < .10.  This means that for each trial every participant improved significantly.


     Time was a major factor involved in the current experiment.  For trial one, time was a significant finding.  Males traveled through the maze without landmarks significantly faster.  For the rest of the trials, males continued to travel faster than the females.  However, the trial times were not significantly different.  As a whole, participants improved over the first three trials.  This is supported by the significant main effect found for trial time.  In addition to this finding was a significant interaction effect for gender * maze.  This shows that across the first three trials males and females performed differently on the maze without landmarks, and performed similarly to each other on the maze with landmarks.
      Virtual reality is becoming a prominent way to experiment within the cognitive realm today.  This study could be replicated in many ways to study a number of different factors.  The current study was done to examine gender differences in strategy of navigational style using virtual reality.  However, this study could be done in different ways to examine other gender differences.  For instance, while conducting the current study, most of the participants got lost in the maze at some point.  When this happened they were told to ask the experimenter to show them the proper route through again.  There was a noticeable gender difference when the males got lost.  They took a much longer amount of time to ask the experimenter how to navigate through the maze correctly.  Some of the males actually insisted upon knowing the correct way through.  They just wanted to start over again and do it themselves.  On the other hand, when the females got lost they realized it faster, and told the experimenter to show them the correct path through the maze again. 
     It would be interesting to design a similar study that examined gender differences in the amount of time it would take for participants to ask for directions when lost in a virtual maze.  Using one group of males and one group of females the participants would be asked to navigate through a 15 turn maze.  The high number of turns would be useful to get the participants lost purposely.  Then, once they are lost the timing would begin.  The time it took for the participants to ask for directions would be measured. 
     The gender of the experimenter may also be a factor.  For males, it could be hypothesized that if the experimenter is a female they will wait even longer to ask for the correct path through.  If the experimenter is a male, it should be hypothesized that males will still wait longer to ask for the correct path through.  However, they would not wait as long to ask for help if the experimenter is male.  Though this experiment would be tedious to conduct because it requires two different experimenters doing the same experiment, it would be worth while to further examine these gender differences. 


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