Scientists discover the best formula for giving directions

A team of scientists have found that people are most likely to retain directions when they begin with a landmark and end with an object of interest.

Pat Greenhouse /The Boston Globe via AP
In this photo taken on Dec. 3, 2015, Boston Public Library curator of maps Ronald Grim, who helped reclaim this rare map that was stolen from the library, looks closely at it, in Boston. The centuries-old map compiled by French explorer Samuel de Champlain and believed to be among dozens stolen more than a decade ago from the Boston Public Library has been recovered, library officials said Friday, Dec. 4.

Is it better to go straight for a quarter of a mile and then take a left, or walk to the corner drugstore and follow the path toward the red flag? As it turns out, there’s a science behind giving directions.

According to lead researcher Alasdair Clarke from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Psychology, people are more likely to retain directions when they begin with a landmark and end with an object of interest.

“Here we show for the first time 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,’ ” Mr. Clarke says.

The group of scientists conducted a series of experiments using the popular children’s book “Where’s Wally,” which was renamed "Where's Waldo" in the US. They asked participants to focus on the human figure Wally, who is often disguised behind a clutter of obtrusive images. Then, in their own words, participants were asked to give instructions on how to locate Wally.  

Researchers found that most of the participants noted visual landmarks such as large buildings and animals to first describe Wally’s location, ending with more specific and detailed descriptions. But if Wally was the most notable visual marker, he was often described first.

Next, the team tested participants by giving them a specific word order: those that used a series of landmark-specific words were the most efficient in finding Wally. 

Ultimately, the study found that when people are given a mental note of visually strong images in pictures, such as landmarks, they are much more likely to spot their object of interest faster.

“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,” wrote Micha Elsner, co-author of the study and a associate professor from The Ohio State University’s Department of Linguistics.

While studies are looking into the psychology of how people process direction-giving information, the team’s long-term goal is to create a computer that can give directions based on detecting targeted landmarks. 

Similar studies have been done to investigate the science behind giving directions. Some scientists, such as Deborah Saucier, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, examined how gender played a role in giving directions.

Her team observed that while women give directions based on landmarks and “left and right turns,” men give directions based on distances measured in numerical factors, such as miles or minutes. Ms. Saucier’s theorized that the discrepancy dates back to the very fundamentals of human evolution.

Some animals such as homing pigeons, have extra iron in their nose that helps them turn toward the magnetic north pole," reports Popular Science. "But men's internal maps, Saucier theorizes, most likely date back to our hunting ancestors. During a hunt, men would stray far from home and into unfamiliar territory to bring down wild animals. They may have relied on tracking the position of the sun and their innate orientation skills to find the most direct route home."

Prehistoric women, on the other hand, focused more on gathering nutritious plants, which remained near landmarks.

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