The curse of knowledge

Have you ever had a teacher who was very smart, but also terrible at actual teaching? An expert who used so much jargon you could not quite follow their explanation? This is called the “curse of knowledge”, a term coined in 1989 by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber.

It’s a cognitive bias that occurs when someone incorrectly assumes that the others have enough background to understand. For example, that smart professor of yours might no longer remember the challenges a young student faces when learning a new subject.

“It might be asked whether this failure to empathise with ourselves in a more ignorant state is not paralleled by a failure to empathise with outcome-ignorant others.”

Baruch Fischhoff, Professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University.
The curse of knowledge

When familiarity leads to false assumptions

One of the most famous illustrations of the curse of knowledge is a 1990 experiment which was conducted at Stanford by a graduate student named Elizabeth Newton. In this study, she asked a group of participants to “tap out” famous songs with their fingers, while another group tried to name the melodies.

When the “tappers” were asked to predict how many of the songs would be recognised by the listeners, they would always overestimate. The “tappers” were so familiar with what they were tapping, they assumed listeners would easily recognise the melody.

These findings have interesting business applications. For example, research suggests that sales people who are better informed about their product may be at a disadvantage compared to less-informed sales people. This is because the better-informed sales people fail to adjust their pitch to the level of knowledge of their prospects. Since the knowledge gap is smaller, lesser-informed sales people also find it easier to align on a pricing that both parties deem acceptable.

The curse of knowledge

How to avoid the curse of knowledge

You can avoid the negative effects of the curse of knowledge by constantly questioning your assumptions as to how much exactly your audience knows.

  • Know your audience. If you’re talking to potential customers, ask a few questions before starting your sales pitch. Try to know how much they know. If you’re talking to a friend or colleague, assess the extent of their knowledge before starting your explanation.
  • Get a fresh perspective. Did you build something or created a piece of content? Get a fresh pair of eyes on it and ask for honest feedback. How much did they understand? Where there any parts that felt confusing?
  • Show, don’t tell. A picture can be worth a thousand words. Instead of a lengthy explanation, see if you can create a visual, a graph, or an illustration that conveys the same content in a more accessible way. Pause at every step to ensure the person is following.

What’s great about this approach is that it will also reinforce your own knowledge. For instance, the Feynman Technique is a process through which you pretend to explain a concept you just learned to a child. If you can’t explain something without using complicated jargon, you’re probably not as familiar with it as you think.

We also remember things better when creating our own version of the material. The Generation Effect shows that actively manipulating new information may create relationships between each item, facilitating the retrieval of information when it’s needed. Instead of relying on memory alone to give a perhaps incomplete explanation to someone, start from scratch and create a whole new version of the material.

Being aware of the curse of knowledge is a first step; actively trying to avoid it and thus improving your own learning process is the second one.

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