During our recent NY / New Jersey visit (during the kids spring break) I had the first opportunity to drive a car equipped with a GPS system. It was a case of love at first sight. I got back home and bought myself a Tom Tom right away.

I used this unit extensively during my recent trip to Purdue, and it was a life-saver, though it did mess up after it got me right next door to my destination and instead of taking me there, placed me on an infinite loop. I finally broke through that vicious cycle by shutting it off and asking a pedestrian.

But this post is not about the efficacy of GPS units but rather about how we make attributions to technologies. For instance, both these units use a female voice and yet I noticed that I tended address it as “he” — as in “what did he say again?” My kids noticed this discrepancy, which led to a fascinating discussion on how we make attributions (as to whether these attributions are true or false, is at some level, not the relevant to this discussion).

As to why my attributions go so against common sense (regarding it as a male even while the voice is female) we discussed that as well. It seems to me that I am responding to the Tom Tom as a voice of authority or knowledge and thus am making some sub-conscious gender attributions based on that. This “male teacher or leader” effect is so strong that it drowns out the countervailing attribution based on the gender of the voice.

Finally, as I have been using the Tom Tom more and more, I am sensing a shift in my thinking. Increasingly the female voice is becoming the dominant “cue” instrumental in “locking me in” on my attribution of gender. I guess the GPS unit lost some of its “authority” and “credibility” when I realized that it was not error free as I had thought it to be.