"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Why Is It So Hard To Give Good Directions?

In an article of this title, journalist Tom Stafford (BBC Future, 11.6.12) has explored brain function and psychology to answer the question.  It has to do with empathy, he says.  We are all wired and programmed to make sense of our world and then to store that sensory map into our cerebral hard drive. This makes evolutionary sense because we would not want to have to be constantly figuring out how to get back to the cave, especially when being chased. 

The fact that the curse of knowledge exists tells us how hard a problem it is to think about other people's minds. Like many hard cognitive problems – such as seeing, for example – the human brain has evolved specialist mechanisms which are dedicate to solving it for us, so that we don't normally have to expend conscious effort. Most of the time we get the joke, just as most of the time we simply open our eyes and see the world.

However, when someone asks us for directions, the extraction of that stored data and more importantly the translation of it from bits and fragments to something understandable to others is by no means rote and simple. We have to put ourselves into the shoes of the directions-asker who knows nothing about our neighborhood.

Once you are familiar with a topic it is very hard to understand what someone who isn't familiar with it needs to know. The curse of knowledge isn't a surprising flaw in our mental machinery – really it is just a side effect of our basic alienation from each other. We all have different thoughts and beliefs, and we have no special access to each other's minds.

Since it is so difficult for people to formulate good directions, it is quite normal for those trying to follow them to get confused.  I thought I had a special problem with directions, but now I know that I am not alone. I am so bad, that I don’t even fully pay attention to the first person I ask, because I know that in the bevy of “Go three blocks and turn left…No, sorry, turn right….Then after about 200 yards after you’ve past the Mom and Pop store on the corner….” I will remember only the bit about the first three blocks.  If I stop two or three times, I can confirm the initial directions, add incremental pieces, and eventually get to my destination.

Giving and following directions, hard as it is in Washington, DC, is nothing compared to other places in the world.  Perhaps some of you may remember an old Bob and Ray routine.  An out-of-state driver in rural Maine stops to ask directions from an old farmer pitching hay. 

“Which way to Millinocket?”, asks the driver.

“Well”, drawls the farmer, stroking his beard, “You go down this road a piece, ‘bout down to the pasture on the right…You’ll see cows grazing by the fence…”

“No, wait a minute”, the farmer reflects.  “You go back this way and turn left.  The road turns to tar now and again, and then you’ll see….” 

After changing his directions a few more times, he hesitates,looks both ways down the road, and says, 

“Mister, you can’t get there from here”

I lived in Bombay many years ago and often had to drive to areas of the city that I had never visited, and needed to rely on my city resident colleagues to help me out.  The problem was that Bombay, fashioned after old 19th Century London, relied less on street numbers than on street and building names.  If you were from the area, directions to proceed to Dorchester Mansions or Blackmore Gardens made sense.  My colleague, Mr. Murthy started his directions as any Bombay-wallah would: “Do you know how to get to Borivili?”, he asked?  I replied that I did not.  “Then are you familiar with the Rex Cinema?  You have to pass it to get to Borivili”. 

Again I said that I knew very little about the city.  “Then why don’t you head towards Shivaji Road and it will take you to Borivili and on to your destination”.  This suggestion-blank response dialogue continued until he, like the Maine farmer in the Bob and Ray gag, said, “I am sorry, sahib, you can’t get there from here”.

I eventually found my way around  the city, at least the parts nearest my apartment and office.  Like all good Bombay drivers I paid no attention to street names which were never used as reference.  Even when they were, the directions made no sense because the names were frequently changed from old, easily recognizable English ones to new Indian ones.  The straightforward Ballard Road became the impenetrable Shoorjee Vallabhdas Marg and the even simpler Ridge Road was transformed into Bal Gangadhar Kher Marg. Residents sometimes used the old names and sometimes the new.

So I learned to jettison my reliance on street names and grids and learned go turn left at the Tejpal Mandir, right at the Kwality Restaurant; go under the Deshmukh Flyover, past Athena Terrace, and keep on the road to Worli.

Yet, there were many times when I lost my bearings, when I missed the Panaji Temple or the New Light of Asia tea stall, and had to ask for directions. Indians when giving directions would not point as Americans do with a straight arm and a pointed index finger, like aiming a rifle at a target.  They would wave their arm in the general direction the driver should go, sweeping it in a long arc from left to right, taking in many lefts and rights.

“You go this way”, the direction-giver would say with more emphasis when I repeated my question, again flipping his wrist and swiping his arm more vigorously in the same long, vague, imprecise arc.  It was the gestural answer to Mr. Murthy’s verbal instructions – one always assumed that you knew at least something about the area and did not have to start from scratch.

Although Paris is far more easier to negotiate than Bombay, when I first asked for directions in what I knew was perfectly good and understandable French, the response I invariably got was “Je ne comprends pas anglais” – I don’t understand English.  The French, I am told, have become a bit more accommodating to foreigners now that they are a part of the EU, but it is hard to shake old ways and Gallic logic – “If you want to find your way around Paris, you need to be French”.

The good news is that…you can use deliberate strategies to help you think about what other people know... One strategy is to tell people what they can ignore, as well as what they need to know. This works well with directions (and results in instructions like “keep going until you see the red door. There’s a pink door, but that’s not it”)

So learning how to give better directions is really a way of improving human communications – to practice empathy; to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; to try on a stranger’s perceptual glasses. I tried once to recreate my neighborhood in my mind, deliberately taking myself from one location to another.  I realized that the road I had thought was straight actually veered to the left at a point where another entered it.  I had forgotten a do-not-enter sign on another.  The old, familiar gas station was lost in what I now say was the neighborhood shopping complex and could be easily missed.  I deconstructed my minds images and made a new, more objective map; and in the process began to see the neighborhood which I had taken for granted in the course of my reflexive turns and stops in a new way.

With a few tricks like this, and perhaps some general practice, we can turn the concept of trying to read other people’s minds – what some psychologists call “mind mindedness” – into a habit, and so improve our Theory of Mind abilities. (Something most of us remember struggling hard to do in adolescence.) Which is a good thing, since good theory of mind is what makes a considerate partner, friend or co-worker - and a good giver of directions.

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