The curse of knowledge

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton studied a simple experiment which earned her a Ph.D in psychology at Stanford.

It involved two groups of people – “tappers” and “listeners”. Tappers were given a well known tune (such as “Happy Birthday”) and asked to tap by knocking on a desk. The listeners had to figure out which song was being tapped.

I promise this would be more interesting if you tried it out yourself. Go ahead. Try tapping “Jingle Bells” on a table.

The listeners had a hard time in this exercise.  They fared poorly. They guessed 1 in 40 song correctly –  2.5 %. But here’s the surprising part. The tappers were asked to estimate how many listeners would be able to guess their tune. They had estimated that 1 in 2 listeners, or 50% would guess correctly. When they saw the listeners struggling, when one of them guessed “Happy Birthday” instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, their expressions said, “How could you be so stupid?”

The listeners had the curse of knowledge. Once we know something, it is impossible for us to imagine how it is to have not known it. That is why a magic trick is useless once we know its secret.

As the tappers tapped their song, they could not help but play its tune in their head. If you had tried this, you would have noticed it as well. The listeners did not have this luxury of a background score. To them, the taps sounded like Latin in Morse Code. The tune playing in the tappers’ heads caused them to overestimate their ability in communicating the song.

The curse of knowledge affects everybody. It could get in the way of a manager delegating tasks to her team. It could hinder a teacher’s ability to teach a new concept. Ironically, the more accomplished the teacher, the bigger the curse of knowledge he bears.

Therefore, being empathetic, seeking feedback from the audience, making eye contact and gauging people’s response, is indispensable in effective communication. Or else, we are likely to keep tapping away at our table, assuming that the world gets us.

Source: An excerpt from Made to Stick – Chip and Dan Heath

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