Sex Differences in Exploration Behavior and the Relationship to Harm Avoidance

Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Fréchet distance measures the similarity between two curves by determining the minimum line length required to connect two units as they move along each curve. For example, imagine a dog owner and a dog going for a walk and taking different paths, but staying near each other to some degree. The Fréchet distance simply determines the minimum length of a leash necessary to connect the owner to the dog as they travel through their trajectory. The discrete version of the Fréchet distance is conceptually similar, but instead imagine two frogs that jump from one stone to another, creating a discrete trajectory. The discrete Fréchet distance measures the minimum line length required to connect the frogs at each stone along their trajectory.

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Acknowledgments

This work was supported by NSF Grant IBSS 1329091

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Correspondence to Kyle T. Gagnon.

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An earlier version of this article won a poster award at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meetings in Natal, Brazil, 2014.

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Gagnon, K.T., Cashdan, E.A., Stefanucci, J.K. et al. Sex Differences in Exploration Behavior and the Relationship to Harm Avoidance. Hum Nat 27, 82–97 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-015-9248-1

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Keywords

  • Sex differences
  • Exploration
  • Navigation
  • Harm avoidance