In casual conversation do you use terms like “Up North” and “Down South”? Why? Is north vertically higher than south? Of course not. It is just a common usage of language that we are used to, right? But does it have any consequences for behavior? Research has shown that people often make mistakes in travel related judgment, especially when estimating time and distance. Research has also shown that people associate vertical position with meaning. For example, people are faster to identify the relationship between words like “basement” and “attic” when the word presentation is consistent with their spatial relationship (“attic” above “basement”). Given all that, is it possible that people may consider traveling north to be longer or costlier or more difficult than south bound travel simply because we think of it as being “up”? That is the research question.
Two researchers conducted a series of experiments to understand this issue. To test if traveling north is seen as taking longer, participants were asked to estimate the time taken by a bird (whimsically called the Ariely Gull) to travel from the North (South) pole to an island on the equator. Those who saw the southern condition (bird had to fly north) estimated on average 41 days, while those in the northern condition (fly south) estimated only 21 days. Other experiments dealt with convenience and shipping cost. In an experiment involving moving cost from a city in New Mexico to another 20 miles away, those who had to think of moving north estimated a cost about 80% higher than those who had to think about moving south.
To test a direct marketing implication, the researchers tested two ads where one gave directions indicating southern travel and another indicated northern travel. Sure enough, those who had to travel south were much more willing to embark on the trip. A further experiment refined this finding by identifying that if the item to be purchased was expensive than the travel direction did not influence the willingness to travel.
The last experiment was even more interesting. It again involved shipping goods, this time within two fictional cities in Florida, one in the north and one in the south. It is well known that southern Florida is a more expensive place. The researchers showed one group a regular outline of Florida with the two cities located on it, while another group saw an upside down version of the same map (north below and south above). While the results showed that people estimated northern shipping as more expensive even when shipping from the more expensive south Florida city, the effect disappeared for those who were looking at the upside down map! That is, explicitly taking away the conventional understanding of north and up seems to make the effect go away.
Clearly, this research provides at least some guidance for marketers in terms of how they should indicate directions in their advertisements. It was conducted by Leif Nelson, Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of California at Berkeley and j3neweph Simmons, Assistant Professor of Marketing at Yale University. It appeared in the Journal of Marketing Research.