Recent research featured on Wednesday, December 9 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology has revealed how to excel at giving directions.
The study was conducted by a team of scientists led by Dr. Alasdair Clarke, at the Institute for Language Cognition and Computation, of the University of Edinburgh.
The experiment was aided by the popular children’s book “Where’s Waldo?” which asks readers to identify the famous character, who is always depicted as wearing glasses, brown shoes, blue pants, a red and white striped shirt and a similarly patterned beanie.
Although it may appear easy to spot such an instantly recognizable fellow, in fact the task becomes quite challenging since the illustrations are usually filled with countless people, and there are numerous red herrings meant to divert attention from the real Waldo.
During the trial, volunteers were required to discover the cartoon protagonist’s exact whereabouts, and afterwards instruct an interlocutor regarding the best way of finding Waldo at the earliest.
Apparently, when subjects mentioned a distinctive landmark first, and then directed their partner to the hero’s actual location, the task was completed in the shortest amount of time.
In contrast, participants who worded their phrases differently, by mentioning the object of the pursuit first, only only afterwards referred to a more obvious focus of attention fared much more poorly.
For example, framing directions as “Waldo is to the left of the red and white beach volleyball, at the bottom of the image” didn’t yield the same results as when the speaker first asked, “See the red and white beach volleyball at the bottom of the image?” and then added “Waldo is at its left”.
At the same time, subjects were much more prone to arranging their sentences in an order that first referred to a relative object when that element was prominent and visible enough so as to be noticed immediately.
When they couldn’t find such an obvious visual item in the cartoon, there was a much higher probability that they would begin by referring to the missing character.
Therefore, as linguists emphasize, in order to give the most helpful and most memorable directions, one must first identify and mention an easily recognizable reference point, and only refer to the actual destination spot at the end.
As study author Alasdair Clark explains, word order is key when it comes to guiding people across a certain route, in order to arrive at their desired location.
By referring to a building or a monument that can be quickly noticed by the viewer, and afterwards explaining how to proceed from that point, people can much more effectively assist tourists in finding their way and exploring their surroundings without getting lost.
As detailed by Micha Elsner, professor of linguistics at Ohio State University and study co-author, this is because interlocutors start processing information even before the speaker has completed the set of directions, and may get distracted by the time a clearly distinguishable element is mentioned.
The findings are obviously helpful to anyone wishing to improve this skill of giving directions, especially since many individuals feel at a loss of providing clear instructions of this kind, no matter how well they might know their neighborhood.
However, there is an added benefit to the study’s findings: the fact that they could be used in order to develop navigation software that will provide users with clear, infallible directions, by quickly reviewing digital maps and discovering the most easily identifiable landmarks.
Image Source: Pixabay