Politicians and the curse of knowledge

You might have played it yourself: Tap out the rhythm of a popular song and see if your listeners can name it. Like the subjects in the Stanford experiment, I thought it would be easy for the kids to name that tune; I couldn’t help but hear it as I tapped. But mostly the kids were baffled, and I assumed they had inherited their father’s musical talent.

Perhaps it wasn’t my faulty genes, though. Like me, the Stanford tappers thought the task was pretty easy — they anticipated that their listeners would be able to discern the tune about half the time. In fact, the Stanford listeners were worse than my kids, able to name only three of 120 songs. 

That’s the fascinating point behind the game. Communicators thought their listeners would get the message half the time; in fact, the message was successfully transmitted just one in 40 times. Why the discrepancy? The curse of knowledge: Tappers knew the song they were tapping. Hearing it clearly in their heads, communicators unable to imagine what not having that information was like. 

The curse is illustrated every time an American tourist abroad starts speaking English loudly and slowly in hopes their non-English-speaking interlocutor will finally understand. I want to scream, Sam Kinison-style, “SHE DOESN’T UNDERSTAND ENGLISH.” Yet, knowing English so well, it is hard for us to imagine what it’s like to have none of that knowledge. To see how absurd the situation is, find a Mandarin speaker and ask them to enunciate each word loudly and slowly — see just how helpful that turns out to be if you don’t already understand the language. 

Many are afflicted by the curse. Consider this abstract of an article about experiments dealing with this phenomenon. “We investigated whether adult learners’ knowledge of phonotactic restrictions on word forms from their first language impacts their ability to use statistical information to segment words in a novel language. Adults were exposed to a speech stream where English phonotactics and phoneme co-occurrence information conflicted. ... Control participants selected words defined by statistics while experimental participants did not.”

Believe it or not, those words are actually meaningful to someone. The authors would likely be stunned to learn that not a single one of this article’s highly intelligent readers could make heads or tails of it. (If you’re the exception, my apologies for underestimating you.)

But before we snicker too broadly, consider our own opaque language, which often assumes knowledge that, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, is widespread among political aficionados but absent among many voters. I won’t embarrass anyone by calling out specific statements, but politicians suffer from the curse of knowledge almost as much as academics, and with far greater consequence. 

Every time we talk about “pay-go,” or START, or assume the tradeoff between spending cuts and tax increases, we might as well be speaking Mandarin or discussing “a speech stream where phonotactics and phoneme co-occurrence information conflicted.”

I remember explaining to a client in a post-debate debrief that defending himself against an attack using his support for the (Congressman Bob) “Wise amendment” was meaningless to his listeners, who presumably thought he was congratulating himself on voting “smart.” He rightly replied, “at least it wasn’t the ‘DeLay amendment’ or, worse, the ‘Doolittle amendment!’ ”

In tapping out their messages, politicians would do well to shed much of the expert knowledge they have acquired so as to be understood by the novices who constitute the electorate.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.