Yes, GPS apps make you worse at navigating – but that’s OK

Many of us have had the experience of arriving in an unfamiliar city and needing to get to a specific destination – whether it’s checking in at a hotel, meeting a friend at a local brewery, or navigating to a meeting on time.

With a few clicks of the smartphone, the destination is inputted into a navigational app, with customized route preferences to avoid traffic, tolls and, in cities like San Francisco, even inclines. Anxiety abated, one drives to one’s destination via voice prompts and the occasional illicit glance at the constantly updating map.

But, after having arrived safely, there is the vague awareness that we don’t know how we got there. We can’t remember the landmarks along the way and without our handheld device, certainly couldn’t get back to our origin point. That raises the larger question: Are the navigational capacities of our smartphones making us worse navigators?

Research points to yes. But, given the ubiquity of these devices, as well as their ability to enable particular groups, perhaps we should learn to embrace them as a technological prosthetic.

Worse at finding our way

All cultures practice wayfinding – sensing one’s environment for barriers to travel, then navigating spatially to a remote destination.

Geographers (like myself), psychologists, anthropologists and neurologists have all studied how individuals navigate from point A to point B. In a landmark 1975 paper, psychologists Alexander Siegel and Sheldon White argued that people navigate via their knowledge of landmarks against a larger landscape. New navigational routes are discovered via the linking of familiar landmarks with new ones.

For example, Inuit people, faced with snowy, topographically uniform landscapes, are attentive to subtle cues like snowdrift shape and wind direction. Until the advent of GPS devices, those cultures had no cultural conception of the idea of being lost.

Research has established that mobile navigational devices, such the GPS embedded in one’s smartphone, make us less proficient wayfinders. Mobile interfaces leave users less spatially oriented than either physical movement or static maps. Handheld navigational devices have been linked to lower spatial cognition, poorer wayfinding skills and reduced environmental awareness.

People are less likely to remember a route when they use guided navigation. Without their device, regular GPS users take longer to negotiate a route, travel more slowly and make larger navigational errors.

While physical navigation and static maps require engagement with the physical environment, guided navigation enables disengagement.