Go North, Then Left

Marginal Revolution points to a study on giving directions, which as someone who has at best a decent sense of direction, is close to my heart.

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.

First of all, I’m not entirely sure how “curious” this anomaly is at all. It seems obvious that piloting a toy car using cardinal directions would be made a whole fucking ton easier when you have the benefit of looking down on where you’re going. If you can’t judge cardinal directions from a fixed perspective, it would be a wonder to manage keeping saliva in your mouth.

That aside, it also seems obvious that most people who don’t have extremely well developed spatial intelligence prefer directions in “route perspective.” Without descending too deeply into existentialism, we see the world as we interpret it. That is, everything is experienced relatively. The cardinal directions are absolute and our need to adjust to them creates an extra thought process. By contrast, directions like “left” and “right” relate to our perspective, and as such, we understand them intuitively.

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