Human Nature

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 133–148 | Cite as

Women Who Know Their Place

Sex-Based Differences in Spatial Abilities and Their Evolutionary Significance
  • Ariane BurkeEmail author
  • Anne Kandler
  • David Good


Differences between men and women in the performance of tests designed to measure spatial abilities are explained by evolutionary psychologists in terms of adaptive design. The Hunter-Gatherer Theory of Spatial Ability suggests that the adoption of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (assuming a sexual division of labor) created differential selective pressure on the development of spatial skills in men and women and, therefore, cognitive differences between the sexes. Here, we examine a basic spatial skill—wayfinding (the ability to plan routes and navigate a landscape)—in men and women in a natural, real-world setting as a means of testing the proposition that sex-based differences in spatial ability exist outside of the laboratory. Our results indicate that when physical differences are accounted for, men and women with equivalent experience perform equally well at complex navigation tasks in a real-world setting. We conclude that experience, gendered patterns of activity, and self-assessment are contributing factors in producing previously reported differences in spatial ability.


Evolutionary psychology Spatial cognition Gender Wayfinding 



This research would not have been possible without the support of the AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, Institute of Archaeology, UCL, with special thanks to Dr. James Steele (Director, CECD), and the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Cambridge University. The help and advice of organizers of the 2009 Scottish 6-Day Orienteering Festival is gratefully acknowledged, with special thanks to Mr. Gareth Bryan-Jones. A.K. was supported by a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship. The authors would also like to acknowledge Prof. F. Grine, Dr. Jay Stock, and Dr. Tom Smulders for their comments during the preparation of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Département d’AnthropologieUniversité de MontréalMontréalCanada
  2. 2.AHRC Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, Institute of ArchaeologyUniversity College of LondonLondonUK
  3. 3.Santa Fe InstituteSanta FeUSA
  4. 4.Department of Social and Developmental PsychologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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