Navigators rely on many different types of cues to build representations of large-scale spaces. Sloped terrain is an important cue that has received recent attention in comparative and human spatial research. However, the studies to date have been unable to determine how directional slope information leads to more accurate spatial representations. Moreover, whereas some studies have shown that the inclusion of slope cues improves performance on spatial tasks across participants (Kelly, 2011; Restat, Steck, Mochnatzki, & Mallot, 2004), other research has suggested individual differences in the benefits of slope cues (Chai & Jacobs, 2010; Nardi, Newcombe, & Shipley, 2011). We sought to clarify the role of sloped terrain in improving the representation of large-scale environments. In Experiment 1, participants learned the layout of buildings in one of two desktop virtual environments: either a directionally sloped terrain or a completely flat one. Participants in the sloped environment outperformed those in the flat environment. However, participants used slope information as an additional cue, rather than as a preferred reference direction. In Experiment 2, the two virtual environments were again either flat or sloped, but we increased the complexity of the relations between the slope and the path. In this experiment, better performance in the sloped environment was only seen for participants with good self-reported senses of direction. Taken together, the studies show that slope provides useful information for building environmental representations in simple cases, but that individual differences emerge in more complex situations. We suggest that good and bad navigators use different navigational strategies.
Work on this project was funded by a grant to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center from the National Science Foundation, Grant Nos. SBE-0541957 and SBE-1041707. We thank Edward Brakoniecki for his contribution to this work.
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