Putting your words in order is the best way to give directions


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If you're anything like most people, you probably hate giving others directions. It's not always easy to see the world from the other's point of view, let alone show them how you see it. But, it seems, there are ways to give better pointers — and it's not in what you say but how you say it. To pass on a good mental map saying things in the right order is important, suggests a study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.


The psychology of Waldo

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen found that sentences beginning with a prominent landmark and end with the destination or object of interest help more than those where this order is reversed. A team led by Alasdair Clarke from Aberdeen's School of Psychology asked participants to focus on a particular human figure in a visually cluttered 'Where's Waldo?' cartoon. The volunteers were then instructed to explain, in their own words, how to find that figure quickly among the hundreds of other items.

As you might expect, the volunteers often chose to show the position of the human figure by relating it to a building or other object in the cartoon. The researchers were surprised, however, by the tendency to use different word orders depending on the visual properties of the landmark. Imaging software showed that those who stood out strongly from the background were more likely to be mentioned at the beginning of the sentence, while those who didn't stand out so much were mentioned at its end. If the target figure itself stood out strongly, most participants mentioned that first.


Words of order

In another experiment, the researchers found that the most frequently used word order — that is, 'landmark first-target-second' — is also the most effective at guiding people to the target. People who were given directions with this order, on average, needed less time to find the figure in the cartoon than people who'd received the instructions in reverse order. "Here we show for the first time," says Clarke, "that people are quicker to find a hard-to-see person in an image when the directions mention a prominent landmark first, as in 'Next to the horse is the man in red,' rather than last, as in 'The man in red is next to the horse.'"

The results suggest that people who give directions keep a mental record of which objects in an image are easy to see, planning the word order of descriptions and preferring to use these as landmarks over harder-to-see objects. "Listeners start processing the directions before they're finished, so it's good to give them a head start by pointing them towards something they can find quickly, such as a landmark," says co-author Micha Elsner of the Department of Linguistics at Ohio State University. "But if the target your listener is looking for is itself easy to see, then you should just start your directions with that."

The results could mean advances for artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction. The researchers say their results could help develop computer algorithms for automatic direction-giving. "A long-term goal is to build a computer direction-giver that could automatically detect objects of interest in the scene and select the landmarks that would work best for human listeners," says Clarke.