Home Misc The ’Curse of Knowledge’ – are we a community of tappers?

The ’Curse of Knowledge’ – are we a community of tappers?

by Stuart McIntyre
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I’ve had a fantastic day today, with a few really eye-opening conversations both face-to-face and online.  I’ll fill you in on the former over the next few days.

However, starting with the online piece.  As is my wont, I listened in on the IBM Think!Thursday call today (a series of sales and technical calls for IBMers and business partners on a varity of topics), and viewed a wonderful presentation on collaboration by Louis Richardson, one of the Lotus Worldwide Sales Executives.  I hope to be able to share the presentation tomorrow, once I have an approved version for the public.  I remarked on the webconference chat how revolutionary the slidedeck was, and also shared a Twitter exchange with Handly Cameron:

Twitter / Handly Cameron: On a Think!Thursday call a ...

This reminded me of my recent post ‘What’s the story, Lotus?‘, in that everything that I asked for there had been fulfilled by Louis’s presentation deck and narrative – visual slides, no bullets, loads of screenshots and demos, business-focused terminology and examples, limited use of jargon, lots of case studies etc.


Once the web conference was over, Louis spotted by comments and graciously took the time out to email me, and after a reply or two, shared this story with me:

You are probably already familiar with this story about the “curse of knowledge”, but just in case…it comes from the book “Made to Stick – by Chip and Dan Heath”…and I copied the following excerpt from this web page. It’s a story I try to use whenever I have the chance to lead Top Gun sales training sessions:

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of twenty-five well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star- Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there’s a good “listener” candidate nearby.) The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120.

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent.

The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself-tap out “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It’s impossible to avoid hearing the tune in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune-all they can hear is a bunch of disconnected taps, like a kind of bizarre Morse Code. In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless: How could you be so stupid?

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.

We tend to be tappers. We know the technology inside and out. The music plays very clearly in our heads. But we forget that when we are speaking to “line of business” people in say, a manufacturing organization…we forget that these people can tell you the in’s and out’s of how to mill and produce widgets and the importance of “material safety data sheets”, but the concept of REST services, Portal infrastructures, Asynchronous application blah blah blah is like tapping without any reference point.

Doesn’t this just hit the nail on the head?

We in this industry tend to this behaviour, and there is no doubt that IBM/Lotus marketing certainly falls into this trap far too often.  Kudos to Louis for bucking the trend – and thanks for reaching out today and sharing the story.

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