Providing Good Directions Depends on the Order of the Words

Caitlin Dempsey


How well someone is able to follow your directions is affected by the word order.  Researchers from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland wanted to see how quickly participants in their study could find a target in a busy image taken from a “Where’s Wally?” book (more familiarly known as “Where’s Waldo in the United States and Canada).

The participants were provided with four different styles of locating a figure (referred as the “target”) from a selected “Where’s Wally” image.  For example, in one of the images used in the study, different participants were provided with one of four verbal directions: (i) “at the upper right, the sphinx” [landmark only]; (ii) “at the upper right, the man holding the red vase with a stripe” [target only]; (iii) “at the upper right, the man holding the red vase with a stripe to the left of the sphinx” [landmark follows target]; (iv) “at the upper right, to the left of the sphinx, the man holding the red vase with a stripe on it” [landmark precedes target].

The study concluded that mentioning the easiest to find object first (whether it be the actual target or a nearby landmark) resulted in the quickest search times.  Furthermore, the researchers found that direction givers tend to preferentially treat easy to find objects such as landmarks, referring to the earlier in their directions.

In most instances, starting directions with a landmark and finishing with the target tends is more effective than the reverse order. “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’,” says Alasdair Clarke from the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, the lead author of the study.  These findings will have implications for the fields of artificial intelligence and human-computer interaction.

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The study:

Clarke, A. D., Elsner, M., & Rohde, H. (2015). Giving good directions: order of mention reflects visual salienceFrontiers in psychology6.

Linguists discover the best word order for giving directions – Frontiers in Psychology Press Release.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.