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Have you ever lost your car in the parking lot?

Monday, August 27, 2012
posted by Rita Handrich

You’ve probably seen those movies where the paranoid killer believes the TV is speaking to him (it’s usually a man) directly. Well, this isn’t like that. This one is true. Researchers in the Netherlands are actually doing research on my tendency to get lost once I leave my cul de sac.

My lack of directional capability is well-known to those around me. GPS changed my life. No longer do I drive gripped with fear that I am horribly lost and will not make it to my destination in a timely fashion. Now, if I make a wrong turn, my GPS calmly (although it does seem sometimes to be a little irritated) says “make a U-turn if possible” and so I do. I was, therefore, only mildly taken aback to discover this new research on the “ability” to lose your car in the parking lot.

For a succinct description of the findings, here is the [edited] abstract:

The present study investigated qualitative aspects of spatial memory for the parking place of one’s car during an incidental visit to a shopping mall. A total of 115 participants (59 men and 56 women, age range: 19–85 years) performed a number of short tests, designed to measure several aspects of applied spatial memory, prior to leaving a shopping mall in order to return to their car. 

Gender differences were observed on two aspects of spatial memory. First, women reported more landmarks in their route descriptions than men, whereas men used metric terms more often than women. 

Second, men outperformed women with respect to estimating the distance to their car. A main effect of age was observed for map location reconstruction: Older participants had more difficulty in relocating their car on a map. 

Apparently, the researchers stopped people from leaving the shopping mall and asked them to participate in the study. And they found that women performed less well. Older people also had more difficulty (this does not auger well for me.) However, most people eventually made it home, with only 14% (yes, mostly women) making substantial detours.

And here’s an interesting comment from the article itself: “50% of the participants reported to have encountered rare to quite frequent lapses in memory for their car’s location.”  (This is reassuring to me.) And this technological tool is also new to me: “A strategic tool involved the use of an electronic coding device which stores the coordinates of the parked location and can guide the owner back by a digital compass.” 

It’s akin to the recent post here on prospective memory (forgetting to remember). Those of us who have spatial difficulties use a variety of strategies to avoid losing our car in the parking lot:

Fix the parking space in your mind in relation to the door you are about to enter. [In the research study, men tended to focus on distance to the door and women on landmarks to help find the general location of the car.]

Note what is displayed by the door you enter so that you can readily find your way back to the vehicle. [Researchers referred to this strategy as ‘retracing your route’.]

If all else fails, use your key fob to set off the panic alarm on your car and let your car ‘tell’ you, where it is parked. [Oddly, the researchers did not report use of this strategy. Perhaps the participants were self-conscious and did not want to let the researchers know they were truly lost. This would explain the 14% of “substantial detours”.]

It’s all about memory cues and technology. Whether it’s prospective memory or spatial memory–memory cues and technology advances can make our forays out into the world easier and less anxiety provoking. Such a good thing.

…Or absent a good mental strategy, you can download a helpful app to your smartphone, or get a clever device that helps even when your phone GPS signal is weak.

Postma, A., Van Oers, M., Back, F., & Plukaard, S. (2012). Losing your car in the parking lot: Spatial memory in the real world. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2844


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