Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Curse of Knowledge

I recently came across the text of a speech, delivered back in May at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, MI. The speaker was one Richard L. Weaver II, a retired professor of communication.

In the speech, Weaver refers to the newish book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by Chip and Dan Heath (Random House, 2007). Picking up some ideas from that book and building on his own experience, here's what Weaver had to say:

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"One problem that most educators face--any adult whose interest is communicating with others--is something that Heath and Heath call 'the curse of knowledge,' and unless we are aware of it, it is unlikely we will compensate for it.

The curse of knowledge can best be demonstrated by a simple game--a game studied and explained by Elizabeth Newton who, in 1990, earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford based on her study. She assigned people to one of two roles: 'tappers' and 'listeners.' Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs like 'Happy Birthday' and 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' Each tapper was asked to pick a song from the list 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.

Now, listen to the results. Over the course of Newtons' experiment, 120 songs were tapped out, but listeners guessed only 2.5 percent, or 3 out of 120.

You may wonder what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology?Before listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked tappers to predict the odds that listeners would guess correctly. This is what is stunning: tappers predicted that the odds were 50 percent. They got their message across 1 time in 40, but tappers thought they were getting it across 1 time in 2.

The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge--the song title--and it 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 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.

Heath and Heath remind us that this tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day with CEOs and front-line employees, teachers and students, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. "

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Hmmm. Preachers and pew-sitters too?

This experiment and observation has me wondering, How does 'the curse of knowledge' impact preaching, or attempts to teach and evangelize?

How is "the curse" related to the big question of Christian unity?

Is the curse something that Christians have brought into the church by over-emphasizing the importance of "head knowledge"? A loaded question, I know. ;-)

I'd like to hear what you think.

Source: Richard L. Weaver, "Sticky Ideas" in Vital Speeches of the Day (August 2007) p. 354.


Anonymous said...

All of your posts are interesting, Frank, but I find this one particularly so since my undergraduate degree was in Communication.

I hadn't thought about it all before, but the premise makes a lot of sense and I can see where the message can, and I'm sure does, get lost in the church in the way we try to communicate it to others.

I find this true in me talking with Tom about things since he doesn't have the strongest of religious backgrounds. Actually, what I see in him is exactly how distorted the "religious message" has been for him. What many religious people get across is the very opposite of what they are trying to get across or hoping to communicate.

That's what I see, anyway.

I hope you get some discussion on this. Interesting topic and important, I believe. Learning how to communicate our message better.

Cheers & Blessings to you all today! Dee

of Finding Direction: The Wind Vane Chronicles

Bob Bliss said...

Frank, since I've been a pulpit minister for 28 years this makes sense to me. I think that what I know they at least know it in part and that with only an illustration or two they can get it. But not always. Perhaps that's because my skills are what they should be. Maybe I'm not that good of a tapper.

I also thought this would have some relevance to the heritage of the restoration movement. Many have received knowledge from those who have gone on before and now are trying to "tap" out that knowledge for others. They have the knowledge but they can't understand why their "tapping" hasn't resulted in unity which is the goal of their knowledge.

I'm not sure that "head knowledge" is the only source of our problems. Have you read The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture by Shane Hipps? He maintains that the source of linear thinking and head knowledge isn't the Enlightenment but our literature based media. Which now is in conflict with our multimedia culture because of its emphasis on the visual.

This sounds like an interesting study and needs some simmering. Maybe the end result should be that "tappers" need more patience with those listening to their taps. Thanks for bringing it up.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Dee and Bob, thanks for these comments.

Both of you are touching on something that I just came back to in Karl Barth. He says that the church has a distinctive language that comes from two sources: (1) the Bible and (2) Christian history. These two elements of the church's language are not known by outsiders at all.