Skip to main content

What's up with north?

Look at almost any map: Northern locations are always depicted above southern locations. It's the same with speech: We venture up north or go down south. A new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research suggests this well-learned association between vertical position and cardinal direction leads people to make erroneous inferences. "People believe, quite literally, that north is uphill and south is downhill," said Joseph Simmons, an assistant professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management and study author. "Consumers expect northbound travel to be more onerous, more time-consuming and costlier than southbound travel."

As a result, said Simmons, people expect to pay more for northbound services than equivalent southbound services. In one experiment, for example, participants estimated that a moving company would charge 80 percent more to move the contents of an apartment 20 miles to the north ($1,550) than it would to move the same distance southward ($857).

The findings have value for smart consumers aware of this directional bias (and thus able to compensate) and to smart marketers aware of the fact that most people aren't so aware. Simmons said marketing promotions are likely to be more effective is they describe locations south of something else. Studies show consumers tend to choose to travel to southbound stores when convenience is important.