Posted in The Distance Lens Blog

The Curse of Knowledge

Here is a great little experiment for you to try on your next lunch break:

Think of a popular song like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” or “Happy Birthday” or your national anthem.  Without revealing the name of your song, try to tap out the rhythm of the song while someone else listens and guesses it.

It’s harder than it would seem because of ….(cue dramatic music and thunder clap)… The Curse of Knowledge.  You cannot tap the rhythm of the song without hearing the song in your mind, and it’s extraordinary difficult to believe that your listener doesn’t inherently share this “insider knowledge”.  Once you have that knowledge you can’t “un-know” it any easier than you can un-ring a bell.

Go ahead.   Give it a try.  See if you can tap “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without hearing it in your mind.  While you’re sitting there, enjoying the full ensemble, tapping merrily away, you’re likely wondering why it’s taking your dimwitted listener so long to figure it out.

But your listener isn’t dimwitted.  He simply doesn’t have the same “insider information” that you do.  From his vantage point, he’s listening to random tapping that might as well have come from pecking chickens.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned her PhD. from Stanford University with this very experiment.  She took it to the next level by requiring the “Tappers” to estimate how often they believed they could get their message across.  They estimated that the Listeners would accurately guess their songs 50% of the time (1 in 2).  The actual success rate was 2.5% (1 in 40).

How does this apply to you?

Are you ever frustrated when your employees, teammates, or managers don’t “get” your ideas (or message)?  Perhaps, you — like the Tappers (like all of us, really)– inherently assume that some parts of your idea are obvious.  Once you “know” something, it is difficult to imagine what it was like to not know it.  You cannot imagine what it is like for the tappers to hear the tapping in isolation, without the benefit of hearing the song in their head.  You are “cursed”.

Practical Steps to Thwart the Curse

  1. Keep it Simple.  Begin with the basics, and add detail as the idea takes hold.
  2. Step out of your head.  Knowing that you hear the full score and your listener doesn’t can help you to create a more concrete message that is more fully understood.
  3. Be patient.  Ask your listener what additional information they need.  By working together, you can both eventually “sing the same song”.

Did you try it?  How did it go?


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