Tap . . . Tap . . . Tap – Surely You Recognize That Tune?

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.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

9 thoughts on “Tap . . . Tap . . . Tap – Surely You Recognize That Tune?

  1. The implications of this study re: one’s ability to express deep inner truth are remarkable indeed. It reminds me of what that brilliant Christian apologist, G.K. Chesterton argued (Jeff, if you haven’t read Chesterton, you REALLY need to, esp. as he was THE primary intellectual influence on C.S. Lewis):

    If we are inquiring whether certain results follow faith, it is useless to repeat wearily that (if they happen) they do follow faith. If faith is one of the conditions, those without faith have a most healthy right to laugh. But they have no right to judge…It is as if I said that I could not tell if there was a fog because the air was not clear enough; or as if I insisted on perfect sunlight in order to see a solar eclipse.

  2. The application that occurred to me while reading this is the inability of so many current church members to understand (if they’re younger) or remember (if they’re older) what the church was like pre-1978. The tapping seems so obvious now, to so many, that the priesthood ban lasted as long as it did solely through bigotry (I’m unconvinced that that’s the full story, but that’s neither here nor there), and that the attempts we made to understand why there was a ban led to hurtful and false doctrines. The relative few who rejected those ideas pre-1978 caught the rhythm — cheers to them. The rest of us were normal — we couldn’t recognize the tune from the tapping, but that doesn’t mean we were the horrid racist bigots that we’re portrayed by many in the Bloggernacle. We were just ordinary, average, short-sighted Mormons doing the best we could to understand. But that seems impossible to believe, impossible to comprehend, to those who grew up with the benefit of having been born after the tune was played clearly for all to hear.

    I ordinarily sign my comments, but signing this one is apt to get me hate mail from those who were never limited to tapping. I apologize for the anonymity.

  3. I think some children grow up in the Church and the influence of the Spirit that they don’t know what it is like to be without a testimony. This can leave them puzzled about whether they “know,” or not. It reminds me of when Heber J. Grant was called as a stake president at age 23. He initially struggled as a speaker, which Joseph F. Smith commented on:

    President Smith said: “Heber, you said you believe the gospel with all your heart, and propose to live it, but you did not bear your testimony that you know it is true. Don’t you know absolutely that this gospel is true?”

    I answered: “I do not.”

    “What, you! a president of a stake?” said President Joseph F. Smith.

    “That is what I said.”

    “President [John] Taylor, I am in favor of undoing this afternoon what we did this morning. I do not think any man should preside over a stake who has not a perfect and abiding knowledge of the divinity of this work.”

    I said: “I am not going to complain.”

    Brother Taylor had a habit, when something pleased him excessively, of shaking his body and laughing. He said, “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph, he knows it just as well as you do. The only thing that he does not know is that he does know it. It will be but a short time until he does know it. He leans over backwards. You do not need to worry.”

  4. Very interesting concept. A really vague notion of this occurred to me while learning Spanish as a missionary — once I became fluent, I noticed that I couldn’t comprehend the notion of not understanding the words and phrases I heard, even though I had many, many memories of not understanding much of anything. I just shrugged it off as another peculiarity of the human mind and forgot about it… until today.

    Two scripture passages come to mind:

    And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:5)

    They who dwell in his [God’s] presence are the church of the Firstborn; and they see as they are seen, and know as they are known, having received of his fulness and of his grace (D&C 76:94).

    It looks like, through grace, the righteous may overcome the curse of knowledge — the light will be able to comprehend the darkness, and that comprehension will help lead others into the light.

  5. Tap Tap Tap of God tapping out a rhythm… if I could only convey the song.

    I am just a simple convert and came into the church pre 1978 ( Joined 1976). I was raised in the Midwest and South where bigotry was over whelming compared to the LDS church. I never really understood how badly I was affected by this until I left home and joined the LDS church. When I joined the church my membership was firmly based on the a spiritual witness. I was call on a mission to Utah where I had mix feelings about the stories I was told as to why some people could be members but could not hold the priesthood. During this time in the church I saw some prejudice but not much. During my service I was in my humble apartment with my trainer when our zone leaders; that were known to be pranksters, came in and made the announcement that President Kimball had announced that all worth male members could now have the full blessings of the priesthood. My trainer stated that they had to be kidding. At this very moment I was filled with the spirit and a swelling in my chest that was so powerful that I thought my spirit was going to part from my body. It pulled me to my feet as I testified to my fellow missionaries that it is true… it is true! I became insistent that we needed to go tracting. As we walked around there was an African American man across the street that started yelling Elders! Elders! This was one of the roughest and most dangerous towns in the Utah mission and when someone is yelling at you they either want to invite you to dinner or get you close enough to throw a beer bottle at you. The man ran from the hotel across traffic and wanted to know how we were doing. He told us he was a member and knew that the church was true but he was sadden by the news because he was not active but now he had to get active and get the priesthood.

    I do not know why our Heavenly Father would have His people comply with commandments that would bring such hate and persecution upon the heads of the members or cause such pain to those that were faithful to the gospel. But that day God gave me the full musical song of spiritual experiences that can be conveyed only through words and notes of the Holy Ghost. That day He gave me the full knowledge that there was a Heavenly Father; He has a son Jesus Christ and that the Holy Ghost testifies to the truth that there is a living prophet at the head of the church.

    I too am glad those days are past and we are now hearing great praises of joy from those that were once left out. But to this day I have no understanding as to why such a commandment or policy would be in place. But now all I hear is Tap Tap Tap from my Heavenly Father except when those special powerful spiritual moments come bursting through like the full song of the shofar or the full concourse of angels fill my being with full understanding.

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