Why is it so hard to give good directions?

Where I live, directions to place you've never been usually comes with the caveat "You can't miss it." That phrase is a real downer, because when you hear it, you're doomed to become lost. Then when I find the place I'm looking for, I always wonder why they didn't tell me about the big sign that would have made it all clear. Why can't people give directions that someone can follow?

The reason we find it hard to give good directions is because of the "curse of knowledge", a psychological quirk whereby, once we have learnt something, we find it hard to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn't know it yet. We don’t just want people to walk a mile in our shoes, we assume they already know the route. Once we know the way to a place we don't need directions, and descriptions like "its the left about halfway along" or "the one with the little red door" seem to make full and complete sense.

But if you've never been to a place before, you need more than a description of a place; you need an exact definition, or a precise formula for finding it. The curse of knowledge is the reason why, when I had to search for a friend's tent in a field, their advice of "it's the blue one" seemed perfectly sensible to them and was completely useless for me, as I stood there staring blankly at hundreds of blue tents.

The secret to put yourself in the place of a person who doesn't have the knowledge you have -but that's not easy to do. Read more at BBC Future. Link -via Digg

(Image credit: Flickr user dvs)

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When I lived in San Antonio, the hardest part of understanding directions was the inevitable focus on "where X used to be." That "used to be" factor isn't helpful to people who haven't lived in the neighborhood for 20 years or more.
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Try getting to the airport from any major city. Some places have little airport signs to guide you, but the vast majority figure you have GPS so don't bother putting any signs up at all.
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