Spatial Cognition and Computation 2: 117–134, 2000.
© 2001 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Age differences in adults’ spatial abilities, learning
environmental layout, and wayﬁnding behavior
KATHLEEN C. KIRASIC
University of South Carolina
Abstract. Empirical relations among age, general spatial ability as assessed by psychometric
tests, wayﬁnding-related skills as assessed by experimental tasks in the laboratory, environ-
mental layout learning as assessed in a ﬁeld experiment, and wayﬁnding behavior as observed
in a ﬁeld experiment were modeled in a study involving 120 younger and 120 older adults. The
best-ﬁtting model showed that age-related differences in learning environmental layout were
signiﬁcantly, but not exclusively, mediated by a single ability factor deﬁned by psychometric
tests. Knowledge of environmental layout was the exclusive mediator between general spatial
ability and wayﬁnding behavior. Thus, age differences in psychometric test performance were
found to be a major factor in accounting for aging-related decline in learning environmental
layout, but other variables not assessed in this study also play a signiﬁcant role.
Key words: aging, spatial abilities, wayﬁnding, learning
Previous research has shown that older adults do not perform as well as
younger adults on a variety of spatial tasks, including those requiring mental
rotation or visualization abilities (Dobson et al. 1995; Hertzog and Rypma
1991; Salthouse 1994; Salthouse and Mitchell 1989; Salthouse et al. 1989)
and memory for object locations (Cherry and Park 1993; Light and Zelinski
1983; Sharps and Gollin 1987). Similar age-related decrements have been
found on tasks with clear implications for learning environmental layout and
for wayﬁnding, such as selecting and remembering landmarks (Evans et al.
1984; Kirasic et al. 1992), learning routes (Barash 1994; Caplan and Lipman
1995; Lipman 1991; Lipman and Caplan 1992; Wilkniss et al. 1997), and
inferring distance and direction relationships among locations in cities, shop-
ping malls, and supermarkets (Kirasic 1989, 1991; Kirasic and Mathes 1990).
To date, however, there has been little systematic research examining the
relationships among age, psychometrically deﬁned spatial abilities, learning
environmental layout, and wayﬁnding behavior.
The purpose of this investigation was to test a structural model specifying
how these factors are related. Five phenomena were included in the model.
The ﬁrst phenomenon was chronological age. The second was general spatial
ability as assessed using psychometric tests. Speciﬁc tests included in the