Thiagi Group

Name That Tune

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In his book, You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney describes an experiment by Elizabeth Newton that explains the illusion of transparency. This happens during the communication process when others are not privy to same information as we are. While we may think all of our thoughts and feelings are visible to others, we often overestimate the actual transfer of information. The participants pair up and one partner taps out a familiar song with fingertips. The finger-tapping partner predicts the listener will be able to guess the tune. These partners are surprised to discover that while the tune is obvious to them, their listening partner is unable to guess it.


To demonstrate how information can be lost during the transfer from one person to another.





    Pair up participants. Ask each participant to find a partner and sit facing each other. If you end up with a single participant, include him or her with another pair to make a triad.

    Assign roles. In each pair, one participant takes on the role of the Tapper and the other the Listener. If you have a group of three participants, there should be one Tapper and two Listeners.

    Give instructions. Provide the following instructions in your own words:

    • Tappers, your job is to think of a popular tune that everyone knows, like “Happy Birthday”. When you have the tune clearly in your mind, begin tapping it out with your fingertips. Do not hum or reveal the name of the song to the listener.
    • Listeners, your job is to listen carefully to the tapping sound and guess the name of the tune.
    • Here's the important constraint for everyone to remember: You must remain silent and not talk until I tell you to speak again.
    • You have 30 seconds. Is everyone ready? Go!

    Pause while the Tappers complete their task. At the end of 30 seconds ask the Tappers to stop. Remind all participants to remain silent.

    Give additional instructions. Ask the Listeners to write down the tune they think the Tappers were tapping. They should conceal their answers from the Tappers.

    Invite the Tappers to make predictions. Ask the Tappers to raise their hand if they think their partner will be able to name their tune.

    Collect data. Pause briefly and count how many hands are raised. Do not share the actual number with the participants at this time.

    Collect additional data. Give permission to the participants to speak again. Ask the Listeners to reveal the name of the tune they wrote on the piece of paper. Ask the Tappers to divulge to the Listeners the actual name of the tune. Ask the Listeners to raise their hand if they guessed correctly. Pause briefly and count how many hands are raised.

    Reveal the Discrepancy. Announce the predictions of the Tappers and the actual number guessed correctly by the Listeners. In most cases, there will be a large discrepancy between these two numbers.


    The main learning point of this jolt is that we often overestimate the extent that our thoughts are transferred to others. Drive home this point with questions like these:

    • How many Tappers could hear the words and the instruments playing as they tapped out the tune?
    • Listeners, what did you hear?

    Point out that the Tappers had a rich information base. While they tapped out the tune, they likely heard the words of the song, the instrumental sounds, and all the harmonies that go along with it. In contrast, the Listeners' information base was limited. They could only hear the irregular sounds of tapping.

    Ask the participants, “How often does this happen in the transfer of communication?” Explain that an idea seems clear to us but is lost when we communicate it to others. This loss of meaning is even more evident in written communication like emails where we don't have the opportunity to share our tone of voice, facial expression, and body language.

    Learning Points

    We often overestimate the extent to which our thoughts are transferred to others. This can lead to misunderstandings and mistakes.


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