People prefer to go south

A new study suggests that people prefer southern travel routes to northern routes. Why? Apparently, we associate north with "up" and things that are "up" are harder to get to, elevated, more difficult to attain, or physically more demanding. According to Tufts University psychologist Tad Brunyé, also of the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command, volunteers in the study estimated that it would take much longer to drive between locations when traveling south to north instead of the opposite way. From Science News:
Southern Exposure Real-world experiences underlie avoidance of northern routes, Brunyé proposes. Young children learn that as objects and locations get higher, they become harder to attain. Examples include reaching for a toy on the counter, climbing the stairs and jumping.

An ingrained notion that “up is difficult” then gets applied to other situations. When someone imagines traversing a northern and a southern path, the northern way feels higher and more physically demanding, Brunyé suggests.

Another phenomenon might account for the new findings, remarks psychologist Stella Lourenco of Emory University in Atlanta, who was not involved in the study. From infancy on, people categorize different quantities – say, the numbers 2 and 4 or a big and a small object – as instances of “less than” and “more than.” Also, adults tend to associate larger numbers with “up” and smaller numbers with “down.”

If volunteers equated a northern route’s greater height on a computer screen with “more than” and a southern route’s lower position as “less than,” that could explain a southern bias, Lourenco says.

Travelers have southern bias


  1. It would be interesting to see if this is reversed for people in the southern hemisphere.

  2. Hmmm. What then about folks in Australia?
    I’ve always wondered how they felt about their country being oriented such that North is warm, South is cold.

  3. Weird. I always associate south with somewhere I just don’t want to be. Whenever I go somewhere I usually prefer to head north. I associate south with crowding, crime, and lack of parking, and north with more relaxing. I’ve probably just had to many smacks to the brain though.

  4. Does this apply in the southern hemisphere as well because here if you’ve got a choice between palm trees and snow there are some obvious reasons to go south that really aren’t really subtle mental concepts.

  5. I think the association of North/South depends on what country you are from. (It’s grim up north, etc)

  6. I lived in cold north (New York, Massachusetts, Kansas, Michigan) for 45 years and moved to the south (50 miles south of Houston).

    I avoid northern routes because the roads are bad in the north both Summer (road repairs) and Winter (ice and snow).

  7. Oh! ye’ll take the high road and
    I’ll take the low road,
    And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye

  8. Hmmmm….I associate south with warm and north with cold, but then, I’m above the equator.

    1. That’s why it’s called a Brazilian.

      Oh, my. Wikipedia has photos of different wax jobs in the Bikini Waxing article. That was unexpected.

  9. I thought about the difference between tropics and the arctic, too, but when you look at the map it doesn’t seem like the climate should affect the choice of route too much.

  10. This sounds dubious to me; in my experience, most people have no idea in which direction lies North, South, East, or West.

  11. Clearly there are good reasons to choose south over north aside from this “more vs. less, easy vs. hard” psychological argument. On long trips, as mentioned earlier, weather tends to play a part in choosing a route. On shorter trips, say around a city block, I know I tend to choose the route that will either put me in the sun (south side of a block), if it is cool out, or in the shade (north side) if it is hot. Doesn’t seem to me to have much to do with some sort of mental association with north being “up.”

    1. Thank you all for your interest in my study, and your (mostly!) thoughtful comments. Regarding the “southern route preference” – this is not the only evidence that people misperceive north as uphill, there is also the evidence that is mentioned in the beginning of this article: people overestimate the amount of time a north-going trip (e.g., San Francisco to Portland, OR) would take relative to the EQUIVALENT south-going trip (e.g., Portland, OR to San Francisco) when they are making travel plans between US city pairs. Note that all city pairs in that experiment were equated for elevation, and no differences were found when comparing east- versus west-going routes.

      @Brainspore: yes, treebeard was spot-on!
      @Eviladrian: I agree that you’re the thread winner.

      For those interested, you can read the actual set of experiments at the Tufts Spatial Cognition website:

  12. I associate “down” with flooding and musty basements. I associate “south” with hot weather, sun glare, and the part of Long Island that’s really hard to get around.

  13. I bet there’s a phd in investigating the cognitive bias that makes people who read cognitive bias study articles immediately retort “oh yes, maybe it works that way 99% of the time in everyone else but I have a rational, well thought-out reason for buying the tv two price-points down from the top one!”

  14. I’m curious if that holds for Chinese people, who I’m told use maps with south = up. Since this seems to be a function of the map convention that north = up.

  15. My first thought: the southern route uses all right turns. If the imagined routes are driving routes I’d take the option with more right hand turns. And that bias may show up in my walking choices as well (even though it doesn’t matter).

    This is of course assuming right side driving habits.

  16. I feel so counter-culture. I have never, not even once in my (ahem) forty years gone south for a holiday. My idea of a good time is driving Vancouver to Jasper and finding the highest alpine climbing routes possible.

    @Antonius – speaking of Canada – this is my favourite part of that Wiki article…

    “The Sphynx variety involves the complete removal of all hair in the pelvic region. The name is derived from that of a naked breed of cat from Canada. The smooth-skinned, hairless Sphynx cat was a genetic oddity discovered in Toronto in 1966. Some salons refer to “the Sphynx” as “the Hollywood”.”

  17. I think there’s a similar thing going on with property values too. Richer neighborhoods are in the north suburbs, poorer neighborhoods tend to be ‘below’ them on a map. At least it’s like that for most US cities I’ve looked at.

  18. anansi133 – I was going to make a similar comment. I read an article once that looked into how many cities with defined north sides and south sides had the south side be the “bad side,” but I can’t find it now. I forget what the conclusions were — Boston, Chicago, Philly, and L.A. all have south sides with bad reputations, but in Manhattan, the grittier neighborhoods are on the north side of the island.

    Either way, eviladrian wins the thread.

  19. Pre-colonial civilizations near the equator (see Angkor Wat) are organized on an east-west axis. North and south don’t mean as much there. I guess it is harder to pinpoint north during the day, but at night, the celestial poles are easier to navigate by.

    In the Southern Hemisphere (I am from New Zealand and live in Singapore), we orient ourselves by the south celestial pole, and the Southern cross that points to it, but we use that to find out where north is.

    North is always ‘home’ for those of anglo-saxon ancestry, I guess. There are a number of early colonial homes in New Zealand that were built according to the plans of architects from ‘the motherland’ so have windows facing the freezing south, and brick walls facing the sun.

  20. Meh, I usually choose the route that is fastest or generally has the least traffic; or if I’m not in a hurry, the most interesting.

    However, I had a coworker who was very offended that I casually referred to his end of town as the “Bottom” of the city, and my end as the “Top”. He thought I was disparaging his part of town, but really it’s just because I was raised with maps, and the north end has always been the top to me.

    Although his neighbourhood IS a bit dodgy.

  21. I would expect the exact same bias to exist in Australia, assuming that their maps still show North as up.

    What’s interesting to me is how much a city changes once I really start to internalize North and South. When I walk around a brand-new city, everything seems… flat. There’s no distinction between any of the directions. But walking around my home town I do definitely recognize how I feel that North is “up” and South is “down.” It also helps my sense of direction even when I’m in areas I don’t know so well, because I still generally know if I’m going “up” or “down.”

  22. there’s a wonderfully eye-opening book called “Metaphors We Live By” by Lakoff and Johnson that explores the idea that we make sense of non-spatial concepts using spatial metaphors. From Amazon: ‘Metaphor, the authors explain, is a fundamental mechanism of mind, one that allows us to use what we know about our physical and social experience to provide understanding of countless other subjects.”

    The concept “Up” also links to “smart,” or “good,” hence the association with difficult achievements.

  23. Was this study conducted in the Spring or the Fall?

    Maybe people prefer southern routes in the Fall but northern ones in the Spring.

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