08/22/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Name That Tune

Here's a game you can play the next time you're stuck waiting for your order at a restaurant. One member of your party taps out a popular tune on the table top, and the others have to try to "name that tune." Two things are striking about this game. First, it seems trivially easy. And second, it's actually very difficult. As you tap out "Hey Jude," or "Bridge Over Troubled Water," or "Heard It Through the Grapevine," your companions' puzzlement is astonishing to you, and your rhythmic incompetence is astonishing to them. "How can they not get it?," you wonder. "How can he not transmit it?," they wonder back.

The mismatch between your expectations and your companions' performance is an example of what has come to be known in psychology as the "curse of knowledge," or the "curse of experience." Yes, the song is obvious -- to someone, like you, who has it running through his head as he taps on the table. And your knowledge makes it impossible for you to imagine what the task is like for someone who doesn't already know the answer.

The same sort of thing has been demonstrated in experiments in which subjects are told that Tom took Jane's recommendation and ate at a new restaurant. Tom calls Jane afterward to let her know what he thought of his meal, and he leaves her a voicemail: "Jane, I ate at the restaurant you recommended, and it was marvelous -- simply marvelous." Half of the subjects are told that Tom actually hated the meal; the other half are told that he loved it. The question subjects must answer is "will Jane know that Tom was being sarcastic (or serious?" ) And virtually all subjects agree that Jane will know that Tom meant (or didn't mean) what he said. The problem is that when you know that Tom is being sarcastic, the brief voice message fairly drips with sarcasm, whereas when you know that Tom was being earnest, the message sounds straightforward. "Cursed" with this knowledge, you can't imagine what the message will sound like to a naive listener. Nor do you realize that it is obvious to you precisely because you already know the answer.

This curse of egocentrism seems to be the default human condition: digging your way out of the limits of your own perspective is a major challenge. Teachers like me face it every day as, in preparing lessons, we struggle to remember what it was like not to know what we are about to teach, so that we can make the material both comprehensible and engaging for students. What enables teachers to get better at stepping outside themselves is the feedback they get as students make mistakes on exams, write incoherent papers, and stop coming to class.

And there is another facet of human psychology that makes the curse of experience even worse. Psychologists call it "naive realism." As documented in many studies over the years, when people experience a missing of the minds (over, say, abortion, what to do about the Middle East, fiscal stimulus vs. fiscal conservatism, and the like) they tend to think that they are being objective, and seeing things as they "really" are, whereas their conversational opponent is biased. People who suffer from severe cases of naive realism will be disinclined to "treat" their curse of experience with a dose of another person's perspective. If you see the world as it is, after all, you have no malady that needs treatment.

This double whammy can lead to all kinds of otherwise avoidable conflicts and misunderstandings across the whole gamut of human interactions -- from the hurt feelings of friends and lovers to the failed negotiations of nation states. And there is no cure on the horizon. The problem is perhaps most acute institutionally in the case of judging. Judges are meant to interpret and apply statutes and resolve disputes. They are meant to do so "objectively." But the lesson from psychology is that "objectivity" is a chimera, though it will not seem so to the naive realists sitting in judgment. What, then, can be done?

The answer, I think, is not to try to undo naive realism or the curse of experience, but to assure that judges ruling on a case are "cursed" by different experience. When the judges discover that they disagree -- that the tune being tapped isn't so obvious after all -- the limits of each judge's perspective will be revealed, and they can achieve a degree of objectivity collectively that they could not achieve individually. A recent University of Chicago Law Review article by Thomas Miles and Cass Sunstein assessing the rulings of three-judge appellate court panels has revealed more ideology and bias in the rulings of homogeneous panels (all Democrat or all Republican) than in heterogeneous ones.

This, in the end, is why it is so important that Judge Sonia Sotomayor, or someone like her, be confirmed to join the Supreme Court. It isn't that Latinas do it better (though it seems quite likely to me that in some cases, they may). It is that Latinas do it differently. If human beings were like Mr. Spock, perhaps diversity of experience would not be necessary (though a judge without empathy, as President Obama rightly observes, creates a different set of problems.) But human beings are not Spocks, and the way to overcome the limitations that the curse of experience and naive realism impose on us is to make sure that all of those responsible for weighty judgments that will affect the lives of millions be cursed in his, and her, own unique way.