Atlantic Cities
Maps

Is Google Maps Changing Our Behavior?

Earlier this week BBC News published an interesting feature on the ways Street View in particular, and Google Maps in general, impacts how pedestrians navigate a city. On the one hand, there are people like communications scholar John Haas of Northwestern, who told BBC he likes to eliminate the element of surprise in his travels. On the other hand, there are those like British psychologist Alexander John Bridger, who feared that people risk losing "chance moments" of interaction with their surroundings:

Street View users can "lose that experience of where they are and it just becomes a very automatic 'I need to get from here and I need to get to here'... so it becomes a routinised mechanistic way of behaviour", he says.

The ubiquity of Google Maps — exemplified indirectly by the uproar over Apple's awful version, which already seems in the distant past — is quite astonishing considering its youth. Now whether you agree with the perspective of Haas or Bridger, above, depends of course on your own individual values (and probably your age). But what's pretty clear from the behavioral literature is that, for better or worse, a change does occur in the minds of people who rely on mobile G.P.S. devices to find their way.

Take a seminal study on mobile wayfinding published several years ago, led by German psychologist Stefan Münzer of Saarland University. Münzer and colleagues brought a bunch of people to a zoo and set them loose on a tour. Some of them were given a mobile navigation device (like a primitive Google Maps) to guide the way, others had to piece together the route from segments of a paper map.

The researchers occasionally stopped the travelers for unexpected tests of the spatial knowledge they'd acquired during their tour. The pedestrians took a "route recognition test," in which they had to remember what direction they'd gone based on a picture of a previous intersection, and were tested on "survey knowledge," which required them to place thumbnail images of previous intersections on a paper map of the zoo.

The people who used the digital navigation device demonstrated pretty good route recognition and rather poor survey knowledge. By comparison, the paper map users scored better on the survey test and almost perfect on the route test. What's happening here, Münzer and colleagues argue, is that pedestrians who use computer navigation fail to envision, encode, and memorize the cognitive maps they otherwise would have. The cost of convenience, in other words, is spatial orientation.

The study was more or less replicated a couple years later by a group of Japanese researchers. This time people using a GPS navigation system took longer routes, made more stops, walked more slowly, and drew poor map sketches compared to people who used paper maps. The fact that GPS maps undermined spatial awareness half a world away suggests the basic behavioral phenomenon here is a pretty universal one.

In the end, some will argue that this cognitive crutch becomes a problem when a digital navigation app crashes, or a mobile network goes down, and we can no longer find our ways on our own. Others, meanwhile, will say that such a crisis scenario is counterbalanced by all the times mobile navigation helps us get somewhere quickly in a strange new place. The point isn't that traversing a city with Google Maps is a good or bad thing — merely that it is a thing, for each of us to qualify in our own time.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion