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Tappers and Listeners: A Relevant Challenge from a Book Entitled "Made to Stick"

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Here is a passage from the Introduction to MADE TO STICK, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The text of the entire introduction can be found at
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After this passage, I will give a few thoughts of my own about how this bears upon the challenge we are facing in dealing with this Bushite crisis.


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Tappers and Listeners

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 StarSpangled 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?

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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.

The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEOs and frontline employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but, like the tappers and listeners, they suffer from enormous information imbalances.

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My thoughts:  


The subtitle of MADE TO STICK is "Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die." Or it might be put: Why some ideas catch on and others don't.

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Since NoneSoBlind --and indeed the entire movement to save America from the depredations of the criminal and fascist enterprise called the Bush administration-- is in the business of trying to get certain ideas to sweep the nation in order to drive the forces of evil out of power and into ignominy, reading this book seemed a natural choice.

In general, I recommend this book, which is (and describes itself as being) a kind of successor the Gladwell's THE TIPPING POINT. (I read Gladwell's book around the time I was first getting ready to launch NoneSoBlind.)

In the specific passage quoted above, the Heath brothers are introducing the concept of "The Curse of Knowledge," and true to their own credo, they use a vivid and concrete example to bring the matter to life: the story of "The Tappers and the Listeners." The Tappers consistently over-estimate how readily the Listeners will recognize the Whole (the actual tune) to which the Tappers are alluding (through their rhythmic tapping.)

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
 

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