Purdue Profiles: Carol Lawton

December 9, 2014  

Carol Lawton

Carol Lawton, professor of psychology and Psychology Department head at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. (Photo provided)
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An undergraduate introductory psychology class provided Carol Lawton with a pet and a spark.

This spark outlasted Harvey, her lab-rat-turned-pet, and today Lawton is a professor of psychology and the Psychology Department head at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. As a student, she initially studied animal behavior and experimental psychology and received her doctorate from UCLA. However, once she moved to Fort Wayne, her interests shifted to the development of scientific and mathematical reasoning, leading to one of her most well-known studies examining gender differences in spatial abilities and wayfinding.  

How did you become interested in gender, wayfinding and spatial thinking?

My interest in gender differences in spatial abilities and wayfinding was triggered when my colleagues and I were exploring the new engineering building. In a section of the building without windows, I asked my colleagues if they could point in the direction of our own building. There was something of a gender divide in the way my colleagues were pointing, and thus began my study of the strategies that people use for wayfinding. I began with survey research on this topic and progressed to studies in which my student research assistants led participants on circuitous routes in building hallways and asked them to point to the start of the route or landmarks seen along the way. 

Now I work with virtual environments in which I experimentally manipulate features of the environment to observe the effects on wayfinding. The findings of these studies support the idea that, on average, men are more likely than women to navigate based on large-scale environmental reference points, for example, a sense of where north is, and to report using a cognitive map, which is a mental picture of the environment from an overview perspective. In contrast, women are more likely to report navigating by learning a sequence of route actions, such as whether to turn right or left at a particular landmark. Both strategies serve equally well in the presence of familiar landmarks, but the cognitive map approach is likely more helpful when wayfinding in the absence of known landmarks. Both real and virtual environments show a 20-degree difference in pointing accuracy between men and women, with men more accurate.

Another one of your interests that coincides with gender and wayfinding is perceptions of environmental danger. What research or teaching have you done related to this topic?

In part, this interest arose from a concept I termed spatial anxiety, which is anxiety about performing navigational tasks. I have found that women report more such anxiety than men. One possible explanation is that women are more concerned than men about becoming lost due to the socialization of women about risks to personal safety when outside alone. In one of my studies, concerns about personal safety did partly contribute to the gender difference in anxiety about wayfinding. 

I am also interested in this topic because it relates to material I cover in my Psychology of Women class. We discuss how women have less freedom in the environment due to cultural messages about stranger danger, when in fact, women are far more likely to be victimized by someone they know. It is eye-opening for students when nearly all of the women in the class, but none of the men, report that they think twice about going out to a store at night.

What courses do you teach, and what do you like students to take away from your courses?

My regular courses are Research Methods, a lecture-lab course in which students learn to conduct and analyze data from surveys and experiments they have designed; Learning, which covers principles of behavior that apply across species; and Psychology of Women.

I hope that my students take away the ability to question assumptions, to discern whether claims made by others are based on evidence as opposed to opinion, and to make their own decisions based on evidence. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching?

My favorite part of classroom teaching is when students make a connection between concepts learned in class and their own lives. I am currently teaching the Learning course, and I enjoy seeing students thoughtfully analyze how they might use behavioral principles effectively to manage the behavior of their children or personal issues, such as drinking too much.

I also enjoy mentoring undergraduates as research assistants in my lab. I am often amazed by the ideas that they come up with, which have contributed to the design of studies and explanations for results. I like getting to know them on an individual basis as well as watching them work together as a team.  

Writer: Kourtney Freiburger, 49-62993, kfreibu@purdue.edu 

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