Where's the donut? Factors influencing spatial reference frame use

H. A. Taylor, D. N. Rapp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Because different reference frames can be used to describe a simple spatial situation such as the relationship between two objects, spatial descriptions can be confusing and/or ambiguous. To reduce this difficulty, do people assume a particular reference frame when interpreting spatial descriptions? If so, does the makeup of the spatial scene affect this assumption? Does cognitive load interact with this assumption? In three experiments, we examined reference frame use and how situational and cognitive factors interact with spatial description interpretation. The main cognitive factor involved memory load, i.e., whether responses were made from memory or not. From the features of the scene (object-facing direction, located object position) emerged two interactions of interest. First, since object-facing direction has implications for the cognitive strategies used to determine spatial relations, we assessed how object facing interacted with reference frame use. Second, we assessed how the descriptive axes associated with multiple reference frames influenced reference frame use. The results indicated that people predominantly use the intrinsic reference frame. Yet, despite this tendency, cognitive and situational variables also affected responses, both alone and in combination. These findings suggest that people maintain cognitive flexibility when interpreting spatial descriptions to reduce or inform potential ambiguities.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)175-188
JournalCognitive Processing – The International Quarterly of Cognitive Science
StatePublished - 2004


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