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Is it fact/myth that when you get lost in the wilderness, you go round in circles?

Common belief has it that people who get lost in unfamiliar terrain often end up walking in circles. Although uncorroborated by empirical data, this belief has widely permeated popular culture

Ref: Curr biol. Walking straight into circles

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    Are you asking whether the empirical study from which you quote is valid? Because judging from the abstract, they seem to find support for the claim that people who walk in the desert without a clear direction or orientation tend to walk in circles, which would be at least a partial answer to your question.
    – Schmuddi
    Sep 13, 2023 at 7:09
  • Looks like maybe @pinegulf accidentally edited in a notable source that also answers the question? Sep 13, 2023 at 7:52
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    @JeromeViveiros Yeah... I could not in good conscience leave the middle of the quote out.
    – pinegulf
    Sep 13, 2023 at 8:46
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    I am not aware of any study on this and it would be pretty hard to do. However, it certainly sounds true--the body is not perfectly balanced any systematic imbalance in one's steps, no matter how slight, will lead to a circle. Sep 18, 2023 at 2:31
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    I don't have a copy of Lost Person Behavior handy to confirm, but as I recall, this depends strongly on who got lost. Young children, for example, tend to do a random walk, while people with dementia tend to go in straight lines.
    – Mark
    Sep 23, 2023 at 1:39

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Yes, research carried out by the Multisensory Perception and Action Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen confirms the truth of the anecdotal concept.

Scientists in the Multisensory Perception and Action Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, led by Jan Souman and Marc Ernst, have now presented the first empirical evidence that people really walk in circles when they do not have reliable cues to their walking direction.

The results showed that participants were only able to keep a straight path when the sun or moon was visible. However, as soon as the sun disappeared behind some clouds, people started to walk in circles without even noticing it.

Speaking about the study, Jan Souman said: "One explanation offered in the past for walking in circles is that most people have one leg longer or stronger than the other, which would produce a systematic bias in one direction. To test this explanation, we instructed people to walk straight while blindfolded, thus removing the effects of vision. Most of the participants in the study walked in circles, sometimes in extremely small ones (diameter less than 20 metres)."

However, it turned out that these circles were rarely in a systematic direction. Instead, the same person sometimes veered to the left, sometimes to the right. Walking in circles is therefore not caused by differences in leg length or strength, but more likely the result of increasing uncertainty about where straight ahead is. "Small random errors in the various sensory signals that provide information about walking direction add up over time, making what a person perceives to be straight ahead drift away from the true straight ahead direction," according to Souman.

All quoted from Walking in Circles - Max Planck Society (Research by Jan Souman and Marc Ernst.)

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    In boy scouts, to demonstrate this principle, they had half of us wear blindfolds and ear plugs and try to walk straight across a flat soccer field while the other half watched. It was scary just how quickly you ended up completely off-track.
    – Eugene
    Sep 26, 2023 at 21:06

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