Sex Differences in Exploration Behavior and the Relationship to Harm Avoidance
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- Gagnon, K.T., Cashdan, E.A., Stefanucci, J.K. et al. Hum Nat (2016) 27: 82. doi:10.1007/s12110-015-9248-1
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Venturing into novel terrain poses physical risks to a female and her offspring. Females have a greater tendency to avoid physical harm, while males tend to have larger range sizes and often outperform females in navigation-related tasks. Given this backdrop, we expected that females would explore a novel environment with more caution than males, and that more-cautious exploration would negatively affect navigation performance. Participants explored a novel, large-scale, virtual environment in search of five objects, pointed in the direction of each object from the origin, and then navigated back to the objects. We found that females demonstrated more caution while exploring as reflected in the increased amounts of pausing and revisiting of previously traversed locations. In addition, more pausing and revisiting behaviors led to degradation in navigation performance. Finally, individual levels of trait harm avoidance were positively associated with the amount of revisiting behavior during exploration. These findings support the idea that the fitness costs associated with long-distance travel may encourage females to take a more cautious approach to spatial exploration, and that this caution may partially explain the sex differences in navigation performance.