One of my favorite books, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath, has a great section about tappers and listeners (in fact, it’s available online in a published excerpt). As you read the story of Elizabeth Newton’s research on tapping out tunes, think about the difficult believers and non-believers have in understanding each other.
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?
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. When a CEO discusses “unlocking shareholder value,” there is a tune playing in her head that the employees can’t hear.
Sometimes when we are sharing the Gospel with others, explaining why we believe, we are tapping out a rhythm based on a beautiful song in our heads, where each note has richness and overtones based on numerous spiritual experiences. But without that music in his or her head, the other person has no idea what we are trying to say. If others don’t get it, it’s not necessarily because they aren’t spiritual or lack faith – perhaps it’s because our tapping doesn’t have the right accompaniment. There is a way past this gap. In my view, anyway, the accompaniment of the Holy Ghost can carry our words, our plain tapping, into the hearts of others and help them hear the music and recognize once familiar tunes.
“No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.” (1 Cor. 12:3) It’s the Holy Ghost that reveals that Jesus Christ is Lord, that God exists, that we can be forgiven for our sins through the Atonement of the Son. We can testify to that, we can share our testimony, but it’s all vain tapping that no one will get if not accompanied by the witness of the Spirit.