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Beware Of The Curse Of Knowledge

curse of knowledge

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, did a study to check how confident people were about communicating some message to someone and how successful they were in getting the message across to the recipient. 

In the study, Elizabeth Newton divided the participants into two groups. : tappers and listeners. Each tapper was then paired with a listener and asked to tap out the rhythm of simple songs like “Happy Birthday” “Old McDonald” on the table. The listeners were then asked to guess the name of the song. However, before the listener could guess the song, the tappers were asked to predict the likelihood of the listener identifying the song correctly. The tappers said they expected the listeners would recognize the songs about half of the time. The actual results, though, were way off the mark. Of the 120 songs tapped, the listeners could guess only three songs correctly. The tappers expected a 50% percent success rate, whereas the reality was 2.5%.

So, what was happening here? Why were the tappers so off the mark in their estimate? 

This experiment famously led to the popularization of the term “Curse of Knowledge.”In conveying the song through the tapping, the tappers could listen to the melody in their heads. Unfortunately, the listeners had no clue about the tune playing out in the tapper’s head.

Once we know something—the melody of a song or some other form of knowledge—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. We, therefore, struggle to share what we know with others because we have forgotten how it is not to know the song or the knowledge. Our communication assumes the other person knows what we know. We are “cursed” by the knowledge.

The curse of knowledge plays out in many situations in our day-to-day life.

  • When we tell our kids how they should lead their life. With the knowledge accumulated over a lifetime, we say to our kids what they should do, assuming they will get it. And when they obviously don’t, it irritates us. This is the curse of knowledge striking us.
  • You are a leader in the organization, and you pass on some instructions to your team members and assume they will follow them. You are the tapper tapping and expecting the team members to listen to your tapping and be clear about what needs to be done. And when they don’t, we say, they are not focusing properly. Beware of the curse of knowledge.
  • You are a salesperson who knows your product inside out. The irony is that the better you know your product, the more likely you are to falter in conveying the benefits and value your product has for the prospect. Curse of Knowledge again.

Three Ideas To Avoid The Curse of Knowledge

Becoming aware of this bias has helped me become more self-aware about how I communicate. There are three care points I try to take in all my messaging.

  1. I take care to ensure I provide context for everything I say. This helps the other person understand the full background and contextualize the message I am conveying. E.g., when I speak with my kid, I share the mistakes I made and how they impacted me. I then draw a parallel to what he is going through so that he can understand my train of thought.
  2. I err on the side of being conservative I assume that the other person does not know anything about what I have to say. And, I then ask myself how I should convey the message so that the other person gets what I want to say.
  3. I try to convey messages in the form of stories and metaphors. Everyone tends to remember and process information better when we we present it in a story form. Our brain is naturally better at processing ideas and concepts when connected through the common thread of a storyline.

You want to get better at communicating your ideas and persuading others better. Beware of your curse of knowledge. It can derail you in insidious ways.

2 Replies to “Beware Of The Curse Of Knowledge”

  • This is well explained – I can relate to the part with my own kids because with the benefit of hindsight and experience I know the mistakes I made and want my children to avoid falling into the same trap. Big lesson for me is to stop getting frustrated when they don’t take it in and remember “the curse of knowledge”
    – James

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