Can you draw a bike?

This article was published in 2004, in Newsletter 54.

Because according to psychologist Rebecca Lawson, a lot of people can’t.

Rebecca Lawson was spurred on to find out whether people can draw a bicycle by recent research which suggests that we use the world as an ‘outside memory’. We do this to avoid storing huge amounts of information; instead we look at everyday objects in the world to prompt ourselves. But do we overestimate our ability to explain how these objects work? Lawson wanted to find out just how good we are at explaining.

Lawson chose bicycles as the everyday object because they’re familiar even to non-cyclists. As subjects she drew from visitors to an Open Day at the University of Liverpool where she works. Of the 200 participants, 97% could cycle, 52% owned a bicycle, but less than 20% cycled regularly.

Illustration of partially drawn bicycle used in the test, described adjacent

Firstly, the test asked participants to add the missing frame parts, the chain, and the pedals to a partially drawn bicycle. Next, non-cyclists were presented with a set of illustrations and asked to choose which showed the correct position of the frame, pedals, and chain. This was mainly to establish whether errors in the original illustrations were due to drawing difficulties.

Not surprisingly, non-cyclists fared worse than cyclists, with nearly half of non-cyclists drawing the chain incorrectly. There were three common errors:

  • Joining the frame to the front and back wheels (try steering that!)
  • Not placing the pedals between the wheels and inside the chain
  • Looping the chain around both the front and back wheels.

Cartoon: warning sign - non-cyclists ahead

Developing the ‘outside memory’ idea, Lawson decided to modify the test for non-cyclists. She presented 58 non-cyclists with a bicycle and asked them to complete both parts of the test. Now, less than 1 in 8 non-cyclists made errors. This was comparable to the results of the 65 cyclists who recorded less than 10% errors on both parts of the test.

Lawson is still collecting data for her study, but so far she’s drawn some interesting conclusions – not all particularly relevant to what she set out to discover! So far, the ‘outside memory’ theory seems to be proving correct; non-cyclists in particular appear to be using ‘outside memory’ to complete the tasks correctly. However, it seems that cyclists seem to do better at the tasks because they are more familiar with bicycles. Whether this is due to riding them regularly or maintaining them is unclear.

The unexpected, and interesting, conclusion is that gender matters. Female non-cyclists made almost twice as many errors as male non-cyclists. Male cyclists performed the tasks almost perfectly; their errors were down to 1 or 2%. Female cyclists, however, made more errors than male non-cyclists, but not as many as female non-cyclists. So it seems unlikely that this gender difference is simply due to males having more experience with bikes; more likely is the explanation that males generally have a better functional understanding of objects.

So can you draw a bike? Try the first part of the test using the partially drawn bike – without looking at your bike parked outside the window!

Lisa Clatworthy