Tapping into the curse


Try this experiment: Find a partner who will be your “listener.”  Now select an easily recognizable melody in your mind (like “Happy Birthday” or “The Alphabet Song”) and then tap it out (on a table top, for instance) for your partner.  How likely is it that your listening partner will be able to name that tune?  According to a study from the early 90’s, tappers predicted the odds to be about 50-50.  In reality, the listeners were only able to guess the tunes at a rate of 1 in 40, instead of 1 in 2 as the tappers imagined.  What’s going on?

If you’ve ever read Made to Stick (2007) by Chip and Dan Heath, you’ll recognize this story as their introduction to one of the most fascinating concepts I’ve encountered in a number of years: The Curse of Knowledge.  As they explain it, the tappers, who have the melody playing in their heads as they tap it out for the listeners, can no longer imagine the position of the listener who is not party to the same inner soundtrack that is practically carrying the tune through those simple taps.  How could the listener possibly not get this one?  The tappers have fallen prey to 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.” (Made to Stick, p. 20)

Just think about that for a minute. You can’t un-know what you know and it is very challenging to recall and recreate the experience of not having that knowledge.  Gives a new dimension to the notion of “misunderstandings” doesn’t it?  The curse of knowledge: I was just so excited about this idea once I read about it.  It made the daily, hourly, minute-to-minute dilemma of my teaching so clear.  Every day, every lesson – I am in the position of trying to bridge that gap, to undo the curse and connect with my students to reach a common understanding of how to, if-then and why not.  And, of course, my students are also avid “tappers.”  Imagine all the tunes they have stored up which make absolutely no sense to their seemingly nearly deaf and dimwitted elders!  They, too, experience the curse in their own way.

And so we dance. And tap. And listen. And tap some more.  The curse can be broken and it requires thought, sensitivity, clarity and vision. The Heath brothers provide a fascinating tour into methods to beat the curse. The curse of knowledge has proven very sticky in my own toolkit. If “awareness is the first step,” then “tapping” into your personal collection of curses to rediscover and recoup listeners lost, may prove a worthy next step.