How to give directions

You’ve probably been there. You’re late, lost, and you ask an innocent passer-by for directions. It begins undauntingly enough: “Left at the lights, straight ahead, third right,” … but then your head starts to spin … “then follow the corner round until you reach the park, then second right, then first left, you can’t miss it” … You nod and thank them politely while panic privately sets in. There’s no way you can remember all those details.

According to Alycia Hund and colleagues at Illinois State University, there are two ways to give directions. One is using a so-called “route perspective”, as in the example above. This adopts a first-person spatial perspective and is characterised by references to turns and landmarks. The other is a so-called “survey perspective”, which gives directions as if looking down upon a map. This type of direction giving is characterised by references to cardinal directions (North, South, East and West) and precise distances.

When Hund’s team used a fictitious model town made of plywood to test the ability of undergraduates to follow directions, they uncovered a curious anomaly. The students reported finding route perspective directions easier to follow and yet they steered a toy car to a destination more quickly and effectively when they were following cardinal directions.

One explanation is that detailed route descriptions sound appealing, but when it comes to actually following directions, it helps if the instructions are concise and vague enough so that if you take a wrong turn you still know the general direction you ought to be following.

Lead author Hund told the Digest that the best wayfinding directions bring together a variety of features that help people reach their goals. “It is important to provide complete, yet concise details regarding the route to follow,” she said. “Often, streets or other segments are highlighted, with particular attention to details (landmarks) at choice points, such as intersections. People want enough details so they can follow, but not extraneous details that will be difficult to remember or follow. Moreover, it is important for direction givers and followers to work together to be sure their goals and preferences are taken into account.”

Indeed, in relation to Hund’s last point about cooperation, the good news is that people do appear to have a natural ability to tailor their direction-giving to a traveller’s needs. Another experiment in the current paper showed that students tended to give more route-perspective style directions when helping an imaginary car driver but more cardinal-directions when helping a fictitious person in possession of a map.

ResearchBlogging.orgAlycia M. Hund, Kimberly H. Haney, Brian D. Seanor (2008). The role of recipient perspective in giving and following wayfinding directions Applied Cognitive Psychology, 22 (7), 896-916 DOI: 10.1002/acp.1400

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “How to give directions”

  1. I’d like to see the difference between men and women and how they performed on the task described. I’ve read that women and men give and remember directions differently. Women remember directions better if they are given in reference to landmarks (route perspective), whereas men give and remember directions better in the survey perspective (refering to cardinal directions)


  2. I worked for many years delivering for several florists. This included phoning the recipients for directions as well as getting them from the senders and shop personnel. Four things stood out: in hilly, mountainous areas, direction by cardinal points is useless as the roads curve and twist (so landmarks are much more accurate); men gave long-winded, not necessarily accurate directions heavily leaning on expecting you to know the way already; many people of both genders completely misjudged how far away from town they lived and could not remember the name of the road to turn on from the highway; and many city maps have innaccuracies, including missing or mislabeled streets.


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