The curse of knowledge

Category: Other

In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton studied a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘‘tapper’’ or ‘‘listener.’’


Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as ‘‘Happy Birthday,’’ and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.


Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out.


Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5 percent. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50 percent. The tappers got their message across one (!) time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two.




When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.


The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song —we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has ‘‘cursed’’ us: hence the term “the curse of knowledge”.


Everyone dealing with communication must be aware of it, and fight it with all their might when explaining anything, to anyone.




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