Studies of spatial representation generally focus on flat environments and visual input. However, the world is not flat, and slopes are part of most natural environments. In a series of 4 experiments, we examined whether humans can use a slope as a source of allocentric, directional information for reorientation. A target was hidden in a corner of a square, featureless enclosure tilted at a 5° angle. Finding it required using the vestibular, kinesthetic, and visual cues associated with the slope gradient. In Experiment 1, the overall sample performed above chance, showing that slope is sufficient for reorientation in a real environment. However, a sex difference emerged; men outperformed women by 1.4 SDs because they were more likely to use a slope-based strategy. In Experiment 2, attention was drawn to the slope, and participants were prompted to rely on it to solve the task; however, men still outperformed women, indicating a greater ability to use slope. In Experiment 3, we excluded the possibility that women's disadvantage was due to wearing heeled footwear. In Experiment 4, women required more time than men to identify the uphill direction of the slope gradient; this suggests that, in a bottom-up fashion, a perceptual or attentional difficulty underlies women's disadvantage in the ability to use slope and their decreased reliance on this cue. Overall, a bi-coordinate representation was used to find the goal: The target was encoded primarily with respect to the vertical axis and secondarily with respect to the orthogonal axis of the slope.
Nardi, Daniele; Newcombe, Nora S.; and Shipley, Thomas F., "The world is not flat: Can people reorient using slope?" (2011). Faculty Research and Creative Activity. 24.