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Why We Can’t Give Good Directions

Our minds find it incredibly difficult to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn't know it yet

smithsonian.com

People, it turns out, are not very empathetic when it comes to imagining how an outsider may experience their home turf. According to the BBC, our minds simply find it difficult to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet.

Giving good directions is quite a tricky undertaking thanks to a certain psychological hang-up we all fall victim to:

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 “it’s the left about halfway along” or “the one with the little red door” seem to make full and complete sense.

But we’ve all experienced the frustrating flip-side of that scenario. If you’ve never visited a place before, you require more than just a wave of a hand; you need an exact, precise formula.

This same inability to conceive of lack of experience explains why teaching is such a difficult task to perform well. It’s hard to understand what someone who isn’t familiar with a subject—whether it be the route to the subway or the process of cellular respiration—needs to know in order to understand.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Transit Users Trust Distorted Subway Maps Way Too Much 
Maps of the Future 

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