In 1990, Elizabeth Newton graduated in psychology at Stanford University with a thesis that consisted in analyzing a simple game in which she assigned participants one of the following two roles, drummers or listeners. The drummers were given a list of 25 famous songs such as Happy Birthday and the American National Anthem. Each drummer was asked to choose a song and return it to a listener tapping the rhythm with his fingers on the table. The listener’s task was to guess the title of the song according to the drum beat (by the way a fun experiment to do at home, if there is a good listener). In this game the task of the listener is rather difficult.
During the Newton experiment 120 songs were drummed. Listeners only guessed 2.5 %, means3 out of 120 songs. But there is a reason why the findings of the experiment were worthy of a degree in psychology. The drummers managed to pass the message by one out of 40 songs, but they thought they could do it once every 2 songs. Why?
For this – and this is the true finding of the experiment – there is a simple reason: if you tap a song on a table, you play this song inevitably in your head, you literally hear it. Let’s try it: tap “Happy Birthday” on the table! And, do you hear it? Naturally! It is basically impossible not to hear it. The problem is: our listeners do not hear the song. They only hear a more or less rhythmic drumming, a sort of bizarre Morse code.
This is the so-called curse of knowledge. The drummer/ listener experiment repeats itself continually in the world every day. The drummers are then heads of business, the listeners their staff, there are teachers and students, politicians and voters, sellers and buyers, authors and readers. When a CEO speaks about mission and vision he feels a music in his mind, a song that resounds in his head. A song that his collaborators most often can not hear.
I write this article on my mobile phone sitting on the beach with a book at my hand, that describes these communication difficulties very well. A book I can warmly recommend to you – MADE TO STICK: WHY SOME IDEAS SURVIVE AND OTHERS DIE, by CHEAP HEATH and DAN HEATH.
Good reading and good summer to all of you!