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How ‘North’ came to be at the top of our maps

A woman studies a map of the London Underground network in a cafe.
A woman studies a map of the London Underground network in a cafe.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Which way is ‘up’?  To most, the answer is probably ‘north.’  

It turns out, however, that this bias is the result of recent map making convention, albeit one with profound human consequences. Last week, Caroline Williams of the BBC discussed the ramifications of orienting our maps with north pointing upward. It does not just affect our sense of direction, but also our values.

Brian Meier of Gettysburg College has tested this. When asked where in a hypothetical city respondents would most like to live, they overwhelmingly chose locations in the northern part. The same proved true when a different group of respondents were asked to plot where the richest people in the city lived - they overwhelmingly chose the north.

However, this association between north and good disappeared when Meier turned the map upside down. Which way do you think of as 'up'? And why might it matter?


Caroline Williams, Freelance science journalist and former New Scientist feature editor/freelance reporter/producer for BBC radio; she tweets from @ScienceCaroline