Most millennials wouldn’t know how to get from point A to B without being guided by the soft monotone voice of their GPS system. But even with technological advances, people still manage to, well, get lost. A new study may have uncovered the ideal formula for giving directions — a finding which could not only help give our computers better guidance skills, but help us regular old humans' navigation skills as well.

To investigate, a team of international researchers used linguistics to tackle an age-old question: How does one give good directions? To help answer this, the team asked a group of volunteers to describe the location of Waldo in the popular children’s book, Where’s Waldo? For those of you whose childhood wasn’t spent meticulously trying to pick out a lanky fellow wearing a striped sweater from a chaotic colorful scheme, Where’s Waldo? (or Where’s Wally? as it’s known in the United Kingdom) is a series of children’s books that requests readers to point out the main character, “Waldo,” from various detailed illustrations.

The researchers observed that most volunteers tended to describe the location of Waldo in relation to his position to landmarks in the drawing, such as a building. According to the press release, there were also patterns in the way volunteers phrased their directions in relation to how these landmarks stood out in the illustration. For example, landmarks that stood out strongly from the background were statistically more likely to be mentioned in the beginning of the sentence. Less prominent landmarks were typically mentioned later in the sentence. However, if Waldo stood out most strongly in the image, he was mentioned first.

In addition, a separate part of this study revealed that listeners who heard the landmark mentioned before the target (Waldo), such as in the sentence “Next to the library is Waldo,” needed less time to find their target than those who heard the description in an opposite order.

These findings suggest that word order plays an important role in giving accurate directions. They also give us a better idea of how the brain processes directions, suggesting that people who give directions keep a mental record of easy-to-see objects, preferring them over objects that are harder to spot. Along the way, listeners will start to process these directions even before they are finished.

"It's good to give them [listeners] a head start by pointing them toward 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," concluded co-author Micha Elsner, assistant professor at the Department of Linguistics, Ohio State University in a recent statement.

But while these findings may not drastically change the way you give directions to lost tourists, they could have some major implications for the development of automatic direction-giving computers.

"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," Alasdair Clarke from the School of Psychology at the University of Aberdeen, the lead author of the study in a statement.

Source: Clarke ADF, Elsner M, Rohde H.Giving Good Directions: Order of Mention Reflects Visual Salience. Frontiers in Psychology. 2015.

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