SCIENCE
11/17/2014 08:29 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2014

Sex May Explain Why Men Have Superior Navigational Skills

Men are believed to have better spatial skills than women, but why?

A provocative new study suggests that it's all about sex and evolution: guys with good navigational skills had a big advantage because they were better able to find mates and father offspring.

"Navigation ability facilitates traveling longer distances and exploring new environments. And the farther you travel, the more likely you are to encounter new mating opportunities,” Dr. Layne Vashro, a postdoctoral researcher in anthropology at the University of Utah and the first author of the study, said in a written statement.

Vashro traveled to northwest Nambia to work with more than 120 men and women in the Twe (pronounced tway) and Tjimba (pronounced chim-bah) tribes. People in these tribes range widely on foot and have a "comparatively open sexual culture" in which it is socially permissible for men to father children with women who are not their wives.

For the study, the men and women performed a series of spatial and navigational tasks, which included mentally rotating objects shown on a computer screen and pointing to distant locations. Then they were asked how many places they had visited in the past year, how far they had walked to each place, and how many children they had.

What did Vashro and his colleagues find? Men performed significantly better than women on the tasks. The men also traveled more widely than the women, on average, visiting more locations and traveling farther to each one.

The researchers also found a significant correlation between men's performance on the mental rotation task and how much they traveled. In short, men who were better at the task traveled more.

“It looks like men who travel more in the past year also have children from more women--what you would expect if mating was the payoff for travel,” Vashro said in the statement.

The findings seem to support the theory that men evolved to have better navigation skills because those men had more reproductive success, according to the researchers.

When it came to women, no significant link was found between spatial abilities and travel. The researchers believe men benefit more than women for having multiple mates, which may help explain the gap between men and women.

The study was published online on Oct. 9 in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

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