Spaces for Life

The ReTouch Home Improvement blog



Spaces for Life: The curse of knowing: the hidden reason for so many understandings

By Lance McCarthy

Ok, I have something I want you to try.  Find a friend and a table.  Then pick a song.  Let’s say the Star-Spangled Banner, or Uptown Funk if you watched the Superbowl halftime show.  Then tap out the song on the table and see if your friend can guess what song it is.  Seems pretty easy, right?  You’ll be surprised.
I stole this from an interesting study several years ago by Elizabeth Newton at Stanford University.  Over the course of the study, 120 songs were used, but only 2.5% of them were guessed correctly.  But here’s the really interesteing part.  The tappers were asked to predict whether the listeners would guess correctly.  They predicted 50%.  They were 20 times less successful than they thought they would be!  Ever felt like that?

Dr. Newton called this the “curse of knowledge”.  She said that the tappers had the tune in their heads when they tapped.  It was impossible for them to avoid connecting the tune to the taps.  But the listener was just hearing a weird collection of taps.  The tappers just couldn’t believe how hard it was for the listeners to guess right, but their knowledge of the song cursed their ability to communicate it.

So what’s my point?  I find this a powerful illustration for the difficulty we all have in communicating in our daily lives.  With our spouses, our kids, our co-workers, our friends…we are using mere words to communicate complex ideas that have been percolating in our heads for a lifetime.  Words just aren’t up to the challenge many times.  

We see the curse of knowledge a lot in the design and construction process.  The contractor (me) has decades of experience with constructing spaces, with countless facts and memories and images filling my brain.  The client has their whole lives of likes and dislikes, memories in this space, and a complex web of goals, wants and needs.  The architect has a career of learning how to shape spaces, what to avoid, and how parts go together.  None of these people can imagine not knowing their part of the project, and often over-estimate how much the others know of what is in their brain.  

The homeowner says “I want something that feels clean” and instantaneously her head is filled with images of spaces that match that word for her, and memories that have helped build that word’s meaning for her.  The architect and contractor see none of those images.  They just hear “clean”.  

See what I mean?  Repeat that simple cycle dozens of times in a project, and you may end up with some disappointed expectations.  

So is all lost?  No.  Here are some tips on how to beat the curse of knowing:

  • Be a good listener.  (You knew that was coming).  Listening is the best way to know if the other person is listening back.  
  • Use lots of real pictures.  Sketch things.  Tape them out on the floor.  Visual messages can help the verbal ones a lot.
  • Use concrete language.  Instead of saying “communication is important”, say “I would like to talk daily about progress, and then meet in person once a week.”    
  • Rephrase what you are hearing from the other person.  One of my architect’s favorite line is “What I think I hear you saying is…”  This is a great way to know if you are really understanding.
  • Take your time.  Designing and constructing great spaces is not a simple process.  The more you know about one another’s goals and viewpoints, the more successful you all will be.  

Ready to Take the Next Step?