The Psychological Test That Explains Why You're Bad at CommunicatingS

It's not everyday that you come across a childhood game in a psychology experiment — particularly one that you thought that you had made up. But the "finger tapping" game gives us some insights into our past, and explains why people can't understand you when you think you're being clear as day.

A few days ago I wrote about cryptomnesia, the phenomenon of people believing that they had invented a thought that they had in fact only remembered. (If you've ever been reminded by stone-faced companions that the joke you thought you made up was actually from The Simpsons, you've had a run-in with cryptomnesia.) What do I come across a few days later but a childhood game — one I thought I had invented with my friends — actually featuring in a psychology experiment.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton came up with a test in which one person "taps out" a song with their finger, and sprung it on about fifty students. They each tapped out a popular and familiar song of their choice with their finger. They were assigned a partner who attempted to guess what the song was. Tappers thought that the other student would be able to guess their songs about fifty percent of the time. The other student was able to guess their song only about three percent of the time.

I never kept tabs on the games I played with my friends — we were a wild bunch, and would have no truck with formal statistics when it came to our crazy finger tapping games — but I remember the sense of frustration when my friends were unable to guess the music that I was tapping out as plain as day. I could hear how the taps perfectly coincided with the notes of the song. Why couldn't they?

They couldn't because all they heard was tap . . . tap tap tap . . . tap tap, tap-tap, tap tap (that, by the way, was Rule, Britannia) and it didn't correspond to any song they'd ever heard. Babies tend to believe that whatever information is obvious to them must be obvious to the world at large. Although we, intellectually, know that other people can't possibly know what's on our mind, there remains that lingering sense that we're communicating everything to the outside world. Games like Taboo and Pictionary capitalize on both sides of that frustration — especially when the player gets stuck in a loop because they can't possibly imagine that anyone could be dense enough not to understand what they've been communicating, while their team is going out of their minds with frustration because two circles and a square don't help us understand what you're trying to say, no matter how many times you underline them, Gary! (Sorry, I may be remembering something traumatic.)

But we don't need official games, or psychological experiments, to trip us up in this regard. In life it often seems clear to us that we've communicated something — enough information to get to a destination, our own discomfort at a situation, or the fact that we're only joking when we make a sarcastic remark — only to be surprised when people don't understand us. We're not as transparent, either with our mouths or our body language and expression, as we think we are. We don't understand that other people aren't trapped in our head with us.

Top Image: Jin

Via You Are Not So Smart, American Psychological Association.