Human Nature

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 82–97 | Cite as

Sex Differences in Exploration Behavior and the Relationship to Harm Avoidance

  • Kyle T. GagnonEmail author
  • Elizabeth A. Cashdan
  • Jeanine K. Stefanucci
  • Sarah H. Creem-Regehr


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.


Sex differences Exploration Navigation Harm avoidance 



This work was supported by NSF Grant IBSS 1329091


  1. Astur, R. S., Tropp, J., Sava, S., Constable, R. T., & Markus, E. J. (2004). Sex differences and correlations in a virtual Morris water task, a virtual radial arm maze, and mental rotation. Behavioural Brain Research, 151(1), 103–115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bartumeus, F. (2007). Lévy processes in animal movement: an evolutionary hypothesis. Fractals, 15(2), 1–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Boyer, D., Ramos-Fernándex, G., Miramontes, O., Mateos, J. L., Cocho, G., Larralde, H., Ramos, H., & Rojas, F. (2006). Scale-free foraging by primates emerges from their interaction with a complex environment. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 273, 1743–1750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Byrnes, J. P., Miller, D. C., & Schafer, W. D. (1999). Gender differences in risk taking: a meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 125(3), 367–383.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Campbell, A. (1999). Staying alive: evolution, culture, and women’s intrasexual aggression. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 22, 203–214.Google Scholar
  6. Clauset, A., Shalizi, C. R., & Newman, M. E. (2009). Power-law distributions in empirical data. SIAM Review, 51(4), 661–703.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Coluccia, E., & Louse, G. (2004). Gender differences in spatial orientation: a review. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 24, 329–340.Google Scholar
  8. Croson, R., & Gneezy, U. (2009). Gender differences in preferences. Journal of Economic Literature, 47(2), 448–474.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cross, C. P., Cyrenne, D.-L. M., & Brown, G. R. (2013). Sex differences in sensation-seeking: a meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 3(2486), 1–5.Google Scholar
  10. Devlin, A. S., & Bernstein, J. (1995). Interactive wayfinding: use of cues by men and women. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 15(1), 23–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ecuyer-Dab, I., & Robert, M. (2004). Have sex differences in spatial ability evolved from male competition for mating and female concern for survival? Cognition, 91(3), 221–257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Gaulin, S. J. C., & Fitzgerald, R. W. (1989). Sexual selection for spatial-learning ability. Animal Behaviour, 37, 322–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Gillespie, C. S. (2015). Fitting heavy tailed distributions: the poweRlaw package. Journal of Statistical Software, 64(2), 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Harris, C. R., Jenkins, M., & Glaser, D. (2006). Gender differences in risk assessment: why do women take fewer risks than men? Judgment and Decision Making, 1(1), 48–63.Google Scholar
  15. Hart, R. (1979). Children’s experience of place. New York: Irvington.Google Scholar
  16. Jasarevic, E., Williams, S. A., Roberts, R. M., Gearly, D. C., & Rosenfeld, C. S. (2012). Spatial navigation strategies in Peromyscus: a comparative study. Animal Behaviour, 84(5), 1141–1149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lawton, C. A. (1994). Gender differences in way-finding strategies: relationship to spatial ability and spatial anxiety. Sex Roles, 30(11–12), 765–779.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lawton, C. A., & Kallai, J. (2002). Gender differences in wayfinding strategies and anxiety about wayfinding: a cross-cultural comparison. Sex Roles, 47(9), 389–401.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. MacDonald, D. H., & Hewlett, B. S. (1999). Reproductive interests and forager mobility 1. Current Anthropology, 40(4), 501–524.Google Scholar
  20. Marks, I. M. (1987). Fears, phobias, and rituals: Panic, anxiety, and their disorders. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  21. Matthews, M. H. (1987). Gender, home range and environmental cognition. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 12(1), 43–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Miner, E. J., Gurven, M., Kaplan, H., & Gaulin, S. J. (2014). Sex difference in travel is concentrated in adolescence and tracks reproductive interests. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 281(1796), 1476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Moffat, S. D., Hampson, E., & Hatzipantelis, M. (1998). Navigation in a “virtual” maze: sex differences and correlation with psychometric measures of spatial ability in humans. Evolution and Human Behavior, 19(2), 73–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Montello, D. R., Lovelace, K. L., Golledge, R. G., & Self, C. M. (1999). Sex-related differences and similarities in geographic and environmental spatial abilities. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 89(3), 515–534.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Munroe, R. L., & Munroe, R. H. (1971). Effect of environmental experience on spatial ability in an East African society. The Journal of Social Psychology, 83(1), 15–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Muthén, L., & Muthén, B. (1998–2012). Mplus user’s guide, seventh edition. Los Angeles, CA: Muthén & Muthén.
  27. Picucci, L., Caffo, A. O., & Bosco, A. (2011). Besides navigation accuracy: gender differences in strategy selection and level of spatial confidence. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31(4), 430–438.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Raichlen, D. A., Wood, B. M., Gordon, A. D., Mabulla, A. Z. P., Marlowe, F. W., & Pontzer, H. (2014). Evidence of Levy walk foraging patterns in human hunter-gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(2), 728–733.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Rhee, I., Shin, M., Hong, S., Lee, K., Kim, S. J., & Chong, S. (2011). On the Levy-walk nature of human mobility. IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking (TON), 19(3), 630–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Richardson, A. E., Montello, D. R., & Hegarty, M. (1999). Spatial knowledge acquisition from maps and from navigation in real and virtual environments. Memory and Cognition, 27, 741–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Schmitz, S. (1997). Gender-related strategies in environmental development: Effects of anxiety on wayfinding in and representation of a three-dimensional maze. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 17(3), 215–228.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Schmitz, S. (1999). Gender differences in acquisition of environmental knowledge related to wayfinding behavior, spatial anxiety and self-estimated environmental competencies. Sex Roles, 41, 71–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Sear, R., & Mace, R. (2008). Who keeps children alive? A review of the effects of kin on child survival. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(1), 1–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Shelton, A. L., & McNamara, T. P. (2001). Systems of spatial reference in human memory. Cognitive Psychology, 43(4), 274–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Tellegen, A., & Waller, N. G. (2008). Exploring personality through test construction: development of the multidimensional personality questionnaire. The Sage Handbook of Personality Theory and Assessment, 2, 261–292.Google Scholar
  36. Unity (4.6.0) (2014). San Francisco, CA: Unity. Retrieved from
  37. Vashro, L., & Cashdan, E. (2015). Spatial cognition, mobility, and reproductive success in northwestern Namibia. Evolution and Human Behavior, 36(2), 123–129.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Whiting, B. B., & Edwards, C. P. (1992). Children of different worlds: The formation of social behavior. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kyle T. Gagnon
    • 1
    Email author
  • Elizabeth A. Cashdan
    • 2
  • Jeanine K. Stefanucci
    • 1
  • Sarah H. Creem-Regehr
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of UtahSalt Lake CityUSA

Personalised recommendations