Encoding the position of another person in space is vital for everyday life. Nevertheless, little is known about the specific navigational strategies associated with encoding the position of another person in the wider spatial environment. We asked two groups of participants to learn the location of a target (person or object) during active navigation, while optic flow information, a landmark, or both optic flow information and a landmark were available in a virtual environment. Whereas optic flow information is used for body-based encoding, such as the simulation of motor movements, landmarks are used to form an abstract, disembodied representation of the environment. During testing, we passively moved participants through virtual space, and compared their abilities to correctly decide whether the non-visible target was before or behind them. Using psychometric functions and the Bayes Theorem, we show that both groups assigned similar weights to body-based and environment-based cues in the condition, where both cue types were available. However, the group who was provided with a person as target showed generally reduced position errors compared to the group who was provided with an object as target. We replicated this effect in a second study with novel participants. This indicates a social advantage in spatial encoding, with facilitated processing of both body-based and environment-based cues during spatial navigation when the position of a person is encoded. This may underlie our critical ability to make accurate distance judgments during social interactions, for example, during fight or flight responses.
Keywords: Allocentric; Egocentric; Embodiment; People; Social perception; Spatial navigation.