Ladies, listen up: Should you find yourself wandering an unknown city with a dude who is questioning your directional abilities, don’t doubt yourself.
A recent small study published in the journal Psychological Science found that the longstanding theory that women have a more difficult time reading maps isn’t true. At all.
Historically, men have performed better than women in studies that tested spatial ability (in other words, looking at a map and figuring out where that would place you in real life). But lead study author Margaret Tarampi and researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara theorized that social influences have an effect on this outcome: The cultural belief that women are worse at reading maps can be seen as a stereotype threat, meaning women believe they’ll be bad at something, so they perform poorly as a result.
The researchers also theorized that women perform better at skills that involve a social component. In other words, if reading a map means helping someone else, they might perform better.
Tarampi and her team tested both theories on undergraduate students at UCSB across three separate experiments. And, indeed, the results showed that men scored better than women only when the researchers mentioned the stereotype of male superiority before administering the test.
When the researchers did not mention it ― and gave a social context for reading the map ― the women’s scores improved across the board. Women also performed better when the test maps simply included human figures, rather than just random objects and landmarks.
The first experiment acted as the control group where researchers tested for both social and spatial conditions in men and women. Researchers expressed to the participants that there’s a stereotype that men are better at reading maps than women, and also supplied the participants with two types of maps: One with just objects and landmarks to test for spacial ability and another which also included figures of small people to test for the social element.
The second and third experiments featured only women to test for empathy and if having a social aspect would impact score.
“When we tell participants that this is a test of perspective-taking and perspective-taking is about empathy, then in that case women perform the same as males,” Tarampi told The Huffington Post. The takeaway, says Tarampi, is that there are cultural stereotypes that exist which can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Men and women are equally as good at reading maps. Period.
Overall, though, this research may just put previous scientific theories about women’s spatial abilities into context. A false cultural belief that men are better at reading maps, combined with no context for reading the map, results in men performing better than women at the task.
So ladies, the next time you struggle to figure out if you should make a left or right at the Louvre (or wherever your next vacation may be), whip out your tourist map with a healthy dose of confidence.
And gentlemen, step aside. She’s got this.