The Curse of Knowledge is cognitive bias that interferes with our ability to communicate and explain. The Curse of Knowledge occurs because once you know something it is very difficult to remember what it was like to not know that thing and thus very difficult to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not familiar with that thing. Our knowledge has “cursed” us.
The Story of the Tappers and Listeners from a Harvard Business Review article by Dan Heath and Chip Heath illustrates the Curse of Knowledge well:
In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.
The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.
Common examples of the Curse of Knowledge in action include:
- The use of acronyms by people in a company or industry. New employees at our company are often befuddled for months as our longer tenured employees spew out strings of acronyms without explanation.
- Industry jargon is a huge problem.
- I have sat through many presentations by lawyers attempting to clearly explain estate planning matters who assumed that the recipient of the explanation had a base of understanding that didn’t exist. Examples include mentioning “gross estate”, “taxable estate”, “grantor Trust” and “exemptions” with out explaining these concepts because they are such basic concepts to the attorney.
- Doctors often use complex technical terms in discussions with patients not realizing the patient doesn’t have a base level of understanding to follow the explanation.
- Corporate executives commonly speak in language that is confusing and ambiguous to others. This is because they have spent their careers thinking about these ideas and the language they employ is short hand for much larger concepts. Here’s an example from Dan Heath and Chip Heath found in their excellent book Made to Stick: Had John F. Kennedy been a CEO, he would have said, ‘Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry through maximum team-centered innovation and strategically target aerospace initiatives.’ Instead, Kennedy knew how to communicate simply and effectively and instead said the goal of the space program was to “put a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade.’ This is a concept everyone can understand.
Another aspect of the curse is that when knowledge related to a specific topic is easily accessible to us, we may have an erroneous impression that other people have the same easy access and they know the same information. Because you’ve followed the Alabama special election or the price of Bitcoin or the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem you may speak of these things offhand assuming that others have read about these things as well. But, a lot of people don’t keep up with the news. Or maybe they just read the headline while you read articles on the topic. For example I said to my Lyft driver this morning “how about Roy Moore losing?” He said “huh?” I had the Curse!
What can we do to battle the Curse of Knowledge? Here are a few tips:
- Be aware that knowledge can curse you! Try to remind yourself of what it was like to not have the knowledge that you have now. Being mindful of the Curse of Knowledge is a key strategy for battling it.
- Use concrete examples and stories when you explain. Stories are particularly effective in making explanations effective.
- Try to use simple language.
- If you are the listener and do not understand say something! After reading the book Made to Stick years ago I find that I more often stop people and ask them to explain their jargon and acronyms because I realize that the explainer is likely not intentionally being cryptic- instead they have the Curse of Knowldge. But, can be hard to admit our own ignorance.