Cell phone data shows people navigate with their destinations in front of them

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(THE CONVERSATION) Think about your morning walk to work, school, or your favorite cafe. Are you taking the shortest possible route to your destination? According to big data research my colleagues and I have conducted, the answer is no – people’s brains are not wired for optimal navigation.

Instead of calculating the shortest path, people try to point directly to their destination – we call it the “sharpest path” – even though that’s not the most efficient way to walk.


As a researcher who studies urban environments and human behavior, I have always been interested in how people perceive cities and how this study can inform researchers about human nature and our evolution.

Chase an intuition

Long before I could conduct an experiment, I had a hunch. Twenty years ago I was a student at Cambridge University, and I realized that the path I took from my room at Darwin College to my department on Chaucer Road was, in fact, two different paths. . On the way to Chaucer, I took a series of turns. On the way back, another.

Admittedly, one route was more efficient than the other, but I had drifted by adapting two, one for each direction. I was constantly inconsistent, a small but frustrating achievement for a student devoting his life to rational thinking. Was it just me or my classmates – and my fellow humans – were doing the same?

About 10 years ago, I found some tools that might help answer my question. At the Senseable City Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we were pioneers in the science of understanding cities by analyzing big data, and in particular the digital traces of cell phones. By studying human mobility, we noticed that, on the whole, the routes of the people were not conservative, that is, they did not preserve the same path from A to B as the reverse direction. , from B to A.

However, technology and analytical methods at the time prevented us from knowing more – in 2011, we could not reliably distinguish a pedestrian from a car. We were close, but we still had a few technological steps to take to tackle the enigma of human navigation in cities.

Big cities, big data

Today, with access to datasets of unparalleled size and precision, we can do more. Every day, everyone’s smartphones and apps collect thousands of data points. Working with colleagues from MIT’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and other international academics, we analyzed a huge database of anonymized pedestrian movement patterns in San Francisco and Boston. Our results take into account questions that my young self in Cambridge did not know how to ask.

After analyzing the movement of pedestrians, it became clear that I am not the only one who navigates this way: human beings are not optimal navigators. After factoring in the possible interference of people letting Google Maps choose their path for them, our analysis of our large datasets has fueled several interconnected findings.

First, human beings are constantly deviating from the shortest possible path, and our deviations are increasing over longer distances. This finding probably seems intuitive. Previous research has already shown how people trust landmarks and miscalculate street lengths.

Our study was able to go further: to develop a model capable of accurately predicting the slightly irrational paths that we found in our data. We found that the most predictive model – representing the most common mode of city navigation – was not the fastest path, but rather one that tried to minimize the angle between the direction in which a person is moving and the line from the person to their destination.

This result seems to be consistent across different cities. We have found evidence of walkers attempting to minimize this angle both in Boston’s famous convoluted streets and in San Francisco’s orderly grid. Scientists have recorded similar behaviors in animals, which are described in the scientific literature as vector navigation. Maybe the entire animal kingdom shares the idiosyncratic tendencies that have confused me on my way to work.

Evolution: from savannas to smartphones

Why could everyone travel this way? It is possible that the desire to point in the right direction is a legacy of evolution. In the savannah, calculating the shortest path and pointing straight at the target would have led to very similar results. It is only today that the constraints of city life – traffic, crowds and looping streets – have made it more evident that people’s shorthand is not quite optimal.

However, vector navigation can have its charms. Evolution is all about compromise, not optimizations, and the cognitive load of calculating a perfect path rather than relying on the simpler pointing method might not be worth a few minutes saved. After all, early humans had to preserve their brain power to dodge fleeing elephants, just as people today might have to focus on avoiding aggressive SUVs. This flawed system has been good enough for untold generations.

However, people no longer walk, or even think, alone. They are increasingly attached to digital technologies, to the point that phones are extensions of their body. Some have argued that humans become cyborgs.

This experience reminds us of the trap: technological prostheses do not think like their creators. Computers are perfectly rational. They do exactly what the code tells them to do. Brains, on the other hand, realize a “bounded rationality” of “good enough” and necessary compromises. As these two distinct entities become entangled and collide more and more – on Google Maps, Facebook, or a self-driving car – it’s important to remember how they are different from each other.

Thinking back to my college days, it’s a sobering thought that humanity’s biological source code remains much more similar to that of a rat on the street than that of the computers in our pockets. The more people get attached to technology, the more important it becomes to create technologies that adapt to human irrationalities and idiosyncrasies.

[The Conversation’s science, health and technology editors pick their favorite stories. Weekly on Wednesdays.]

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/cellphone-data-shows-that-people-navigate-by-keeping-their-destinations-in-front-of-them-even-when-thats-not – the-most-efficient-route-170004.


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