How GPS systems impact navigational skills

I hate not knowing where I am and where I am going. While I am not averse to using GPS navigation to find my way around, I admit to not liking being entirely dependent on it. Just following step-by-step instructions from a disembodied voice leave me feeling uneasy because I like to know the big picture. Hence I also take with me old-fashioned road maps and before any trip, look up the general route that I will be taking and commit it to memory.

Jennifer M. Bernstein writes that using GPS makes us worse at navigating because when following the directions, we tend to not notice any landmarks along the way that could give us bearings and enable us to return home if for some reason the GPS were no longer available.

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.

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 research shows that use of handheld navigational devices can lead to lower spatial knowledge, that may not necessarily be the device’s fault. Those most likely to use guided route navigation are already the least confident in their own navigational capabilities; further use of navigational devices leads to a negative feedback cycle, where people become more reliant on their devices and less spatially aware.

She points out that these navigational devices are a great boon to those who are sight-impaired and those with poor spatial orienting skills.

I became curious about how GPS and navigation in general works in Japan (a country I have never visited) where there is apparently a lack of street names and numbers. This article explains the Japanese addressing system. To use GPS, you can enter in the phone number of your destination (presumably a landline), or failing that a map code, or failing that a zip code, or failing that the GPS coordinates.


  1. says

    I have a small portable (Garmin) GPS loaded with a topographic map of the entire country of Australia, and all it does is show me where I am in relation to the map. The rest is planning in advance. No electronic voice ever tells me where to go.

    New visitors to our house always need warning to not heed their nagging GPS units. They try to mislead the driver to come around to our house via the fire trail up the escarpment below our house, instead of the perfectly good street from above. GPS navigation errors are hilarious except when they’re tragic.

  2. Sunday Afternoon says

    I enjoyed learning how to read a Japanese street map to find and visit a particular address when visiting for the first time a dozen or so years ago. It was a strange mental shift that I found thought-provoking in a “questioning one’s assumptions sort of way”.

    Re the video about renting a car in Japan -- why? Unless you are going somewhere remote, there is a wonder of the modern world to explore: the Japanese railway system.

  3. larpar says

    I don’t use any type of real time navigation aids, but I do use google maps to plan trips. I particularly like the satellite view to preview complicated interchanges.

  4. kumasama says

    We do use addresses in Japan and putting those into e.g. Google maps is quite reliable in my experience. They’re just laid out by neighborhood and by block rather than street. The reliance on phone numbers is probably because making good kanji input interfaces is really hard, and place names frequently have unusual characters or readings.

    Only big thoroughfares having street names is annoying, but you get used to navigating by other landmarks.

    I do use Google to plan routes and confirm where I am sometimes, but like you I hate not knowing where I am on my mental map and could never be comfortable just following turn-by-turn directions (human or robot), or indeed letting someone else drive me somewhere without following along.

  5. flex says

    Heh, my wife thinks I’m nuts, but the greatest navigational aid I’ve found is google street view.

    Before a trip I’ll go over the route, and then use google street view to look at intersections, landmarks, etc. When we went to Scotland a few years ago I even spent several hours using google street view to pre-drive most of the trip. There were a couple places on the Isle of Skye that I’m glad I did because the turns were not at all obvious on the map.

  6. says

    In my hometown of Marietta, Ohio, there is a “short-cut” connecting two highways that has a hairpin turn very near the top of a steep grade. Locals know about the turn and have no problems, but several times a year a trucker, unfamiliar with the route, follows their GPS, gets to the top of the grade, can’t make the turn, can’t back down and has to be rescued.

    Signs posted by the city warning truckers of the problem have not been a big help.

  7. says

    Also, my wife regularly uses Uber and we always have to warn drivers to ignore GPS because it tells them to use a street that dead ends 10 yards before connecting to the Parkway.

    Give me a paper map any day.

  8. Mano Singham says


    I agree with you about the usefulness of Google street view. I too look at it when I am going somewhere unfamiliar so that I know when to plan for upcoming turns by recognizing landmarks. Very often the street signs are so small so that you come upon them suddenly.

  9. says

    We have a bridge downtown where trucks keep getting stuck, and I firmly believe it’s because drivers are paying more attention to the GPS than to the signs warning them that their trucks are too damned high.

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