Edinburgh, UK – A new study conducted by a group of scientist from the Institute for Language Cognition and Computation, of the University of Edinburgh claims the have discovered the best way for giving directions. The formula, published on Wednesday in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, includes the best word order for giving effective directions.

The study, named Giving Good Directions: Order of Mention Reflects Visual Salience suggests that a better word order determines how well the second person understands the instructions.

Image: Martin Handford.
One of the typical visual labyrinths, created by Martin Handford, used in the study. Image: Martin Handford.

In the investigation, scientist asked volunteers to locate the famous Waldo from the popular children’s book “Where’s Waldo? Then, they had to explain with their own words to an interlocutor the best way of finding the character as soon as possible.

The results showed that apparently, when subjects mentioned a distinctive landmark first, and then directed their partner to Waldo’s actual location, the task was completed in the shortest amount of time. On the other hand, when participants worded their phrases differently, mentioning the object of the pursuit first, and then referred to a more obvious focus of attention the results were much slower. In other words, sentences that start with a prominent landmark and end with the object of interest work better than sentences where this order is reversed.

“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. But if the target your listener is looking for is itself easy to see, then you should just start your directions with that,” co-author Micha Elsner, Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University explained.

In the study, scientist said that previous investigations had shown that when people are faced with this king of task, they usually refer to visual properties such as size, salience, and clutter. They added that their investigation presented evidence that the influence of visual perception on sentence construction goes beyond content selection and in part determines the order in which different objects are mentioned, and not only that, the order of mention influences comprehension.

For example, enclosing directions as “Waldo is to the left of the red and white beach volleyball, at the bottom of the image” didn’t produce 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”.

This means that in order to give the most helpful and most memorable directions, we must first identify and mention an easily recognizable reference point, and only refer to the actual destination spot at the end.

Of course these findings come handy to anybody who wants to improve the skill of giving directions, but it might not be the only benefit. This study could help scientists create better artificial intelligence algorithm or program. The team has said their long-term goal is to create a computer that could automatically detect objects of interest in the scene and select the landmarks that would work best for human listeners

Source: Journal Frontiers in Psychology