When giving directions word order really matters

When you are giving directions, your word order really matters; it will determine how well your instructions are understood – if you start with a prominent landmark and end with the target object, the listener will probably find what you are describing faster than if you mention them the other way round.

This is what a group of linguists and psychologists from the University of Aberdeen, Ohio State University, and the University of Edinburgh reported in the academic journal Frontiers in Psychology after carrying out a study.

Research Fellow, Dr. Alasdair Clarke, from the University of Aberdeen’s School of Psychology, and colleagues said their findings could have direct applications in the fields of human-computer interaction and artificial intelligence (AI).

Giving directions word order mattersThere are 4 ways the target figure could be described in this picture: 1. “At the upper right, the sphinx” [just landmark]. 2 “At the upper right, the man holding the red vase with a stripe” [just target]. 3. “At the upper right, the man holding the red vase with a stripe to the left of the sphinx” [target + landmark]. 4. “At the upper right, to the left of the sphinx, the man holding the red vase with a stripe on it” [landmark + target]. (Image: www.frontiersin.org)

Dr. Clarke, who was also lead author of the study, said:

“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’.”

‘Where’s Wally?’ (‘Waldo’) type cartoons used in experiment

Dr. Clarke and colleagues asked volunteers to concentrate on a particular human figure within the visually cluttered cartoons – usually crowds of people – of ‘Where’s Wally?’ children’s books, known in North America as ‘Where’s Waldo?’

The participants were then asked to explain, in their own words, how to find Wally (Waldo) quickly – not a straightforward task as each sketch had hundreds of items.

As the psychologists and linguists had expected, the volunteers frequently chose to describe the position of Wally relative to a landmark object in the drawing, such as a building, large tree or big statue.

Wally Waldo Willy WalterHe has a different name in each country. He’s called Wally in the UK, Waldo in North America, Walter in Germany, Willy in Norway, Charlie in France, Holger in Denmark, and Effi in Israel.

They were surprised to find, however, that the volunteers tended to use a different word order, depending on the landmark’s visual properties.

Landmarks that stood out the most from the background – which were measured according to an imaging software they used – were more likely to be mentioned at the beginning of the phrase, while those that stood out little were typically mentioned after the target object (Wally).

However, if the target figure stood out strongly, most of the volunteers mentioned it before the landmark.

Which word order was most effective?

In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that the most commonly used word order – ‘landmark’ plus ‘target figure’ was the most effective, i.e. the listener would find the target object in the cluttered picture more rapidly.

People who heard the directions the other way round – target figure followed by landmark – took longer to spot it.

The study results suggest that when we give directions we keep a mental record of which objects in an image are the easiest to see, and prefer to use them as landmarks. We treat them differently from the objects that are harder to see when choosing the word order of descriptions.

Not only does this strategy help the speaker express himself or herself clearly, it also helps the listener locate the target quickly.

Co-author Micha Elsner, Assistant Professor at the Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University, said:

“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.”

The researchers believe their findings may help in the development of computer algorithms for automatic direction giving.

Dr. Clarke said:

“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.”

Citation: Giving Good Directions: Order of Mention Reflects Visual Salience,” Alasdair D. F. Clarke, Micha Elsner and Hannah Rohde. Frontiers in Psychology. 9 December, 2015. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01793.