The Curse of Knowledge

                               “You’re not the only one cursed with knowledge”

                     Thanos to Tony Stark

I was watching Godzilla vs. Kong last night and told myself a flat earth joke that I thought was 10/10 hilarious. I ALMOST posted it publicly but I thought better of it. Here’s why:

Ever write something down for a blog, email, or social media post and think “man, this is the best thing that I’ve ever written” only to post/send and get crickets in response?


But not really.

One of my (newly) favorite and most cited doctoral dissertations explains, rather succinctly, why this happens. And, like all the useful things floating around out there it’s not new. Elizabeth Newton of Stanford wrote it in 1990.

[The goods start on page 33 of “The rocky road from actions to intentions”]

Dr. Newton paired up to research subjects across from one another at a table, one person would tap out a well-known song with their knuckles and the other had to guess what it was. The tappers guessed that the party on the other side would get it right about 50% of the time.

They got it right less than 3% of the time.

Even when the tapper thinks they have “nailed it” – they have failed miserably. Why?

Because the tapper can hear in their head all of the accompaniment for the song – instruments, lyrics, etc without fully understanding and accepting that the other person doesn’t have access to any of that accompanying information.

The tapper hears sweet, sweet music.

The listener hears some fucked up version of morse code.

Think about this the next time you’re making a video, writing an article, or an email and think you are making “sweet, sweet music” to the other party.

[Or, more hilariously, next time someone is speaking gibberish to you, imagine how sweet they think the music they are making is. For example, I’m over here giggling at how clever I think I am which should be at least mildly entertaining to you]

It gets worse.

Fast forward to Justin Kruger at NYU in 2005 who, in the Journal of Personal Social psychology, helped explain why email and social media are so grossly ineffective.

The experiment was simple: participants got a list of topics and were to create two sentences for each: one normal and one sarcastic. Then they would send the sentences to subjects in another group who were designated with the task of reading the sentence and determining whether it was normal or sarcastic.

People failed miserably across the board, again.

So they repeated the experiment but with VOICE messages this time and, predictably, the predictors did much much better.

Here is the surprising part:

The sentence writers predicted and believed there would be no difference between how people interpreted the written sentences and the spoken sentences. They just assumed that their sarcasm would come through in text the same as it does in voice.

This means at some level I THINK you’re going to read this email very closely to how you would hear it if I dropped it in the private channel. Which is wrong. Worse, at some level, I think that you will interpret my voice messages as if we were sitting in the same room together. Wrong again.

I mean, my flat earth joke was pretty hilarious. The giant monkey with a magical axe fighting a giant lizard with magical lazer-breathe and a plot that relies on the Earth being round kind of tees up a perfect falt-Earther jab. And as hilarious as it is in my head (or when I say it out loud), it’s only entertaining to me because of the exact visuals at the exact time in the sequence that I saw them. To write that down and expect ANYONE else to get would be juvenile at best, negligent at worst.

Negligent because the more you know about something, the more people will turn to you to help. And the more you know about something inside and out, the richer your experience with a particular subject, the greater the gap grows between what you think you are saying and what you are actually saying.

So what’s the point?

People much smarter than me concluded that text communication is almost always misunderstood because of the “inherent difficulty of moving beyond your own subjective experience and understanding and imagining how the other party will interpret the information without your privileged perspective.”

Doing business over messenger?

Supporting your staff via email?

Working with Vendors over SMS?

Trying to solve a problem for yourself or someone else with the written word?

It’s likely that was is sweet music in the head of one party is gibberish in the minds of another.

Something to think about.

Note: this was an excerpt from my Daily Thought Bombs, the original CTA has been removed because the offer has expired. Get on the thought bomb list right here.

Let me know.


PS. When I read this email I think I’m hilarious. It’s likely that you do NOT feel the same way. Further proof of the underlying message above =)

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