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Are You Suffering From the Curse of Knowledge?

Are You Suffering From the Curse of Knowledge?

Have you ever tried explaining the concept of neuroplasticity to a novice? No? Then, have you ever tried explaining how intermittent fasting works to someone who just couldn’t get it? You know, you tell your friend how insulin levels drop, the body eventually shifts to a state of ketosis and starts using fatty acids as its main source of energy instead of glucose, and how this gradually decreases body fat percentage…

But still your friend doesn’t seem to quite get it.

Why is this?

It’s because you suffer from the curse of knowledge.

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

You are suffering from the curse of knowledge when you know things that the other person does not and you have forgotten what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder for you to identify with the other person’s situation and explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice.

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When you suffer from the curse of knowledge you assume that other people know the things that you do, and this cognitive bias causes you to believe that people understand you a lot better than they really do.

In a famous psychological experiment, a group of subjects was divided in two: tappers and listeners. The tappers were asked to think of a song and try to rhythmically tap the song on a table, while the listeners were asked to listen and figure out which song the tappers were tapping along to.

The tappers were 50% certain that the listeners would be able to identify the song they had had in mind while tapping, but the results of the experiment were shocking: only 2.5% of the listeners were able to figure out the song! In other words: the tappers overestimated their success ratio of being understood 20 times above how many times they actually were being understood.

When we suffer from the curse of knowledge, we are like the tappers: just because we know the melody of the song we’re tapping to we inaccurately assume that others will know it too. But often, the other person—the listener—doesn’t draw the same conclusions that we do because this person doesn’t have the same information as we do. In the case of the listeners, they weren’t able to identify the tapping as a song, they only heard a series of discordant tappings.

If we extrapolate these results to communication in general, it means that we think people understand what we’re saying a hell of a lot more often than they actually do—because we’re so used to knowing the things we know that we expect others to know it as well.

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What are the implications?

Let’s have a quick Q&A:

One major implication of the curse of knowledge is that the right people aren’t being listened to.

Q: What do you mean?

A: I mean that the people who are being listened to usually aren’t those in the best position to give advice. We tend to listen to those people whom we perceive have authority. We use social proof as a means to establish the credibility of these authorities. And often that works well, but not always.

Q: Why doesn’t it always work, and why wouldn’t I want to take the advice of someone who has a clear track record of success?

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A: The reason it doesn’t always work out that well is due to what I call the student-master dilemma. This dilemma often occurs when a person who is highly skilled in a particular field of knowledge is trying to teach, inform, or instruct beginners about what they should do to get better.

In theory it’s a sure thing that you’d want to be instructed by one of these “masters,” but in practice it might not be the best thing because the master tends to suffer from the curse of knowledge.

Q: So what? I would still prefer to have Bill Gates teach me how to get rich over my economics professor.

A: Yes, I probably would, too. But the counterargument would be that Bill Gates is too far removed from the situation of being a student to understand what the next step in your learning curve towards success is. Bill Gates has moved through the competence ladder far too many times to be able to accurately explain to you about all the things that he’s doing that contribute to his overall success.

Q: I see. So you’re saying that due to the curse of knowledge Gates would just assume that I’d know how to start a business, write a business plan, and all of those other fundamental things?

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A: Yes, exactly. Another famous example is that of an extremely successful salesman for IBM who was asked by an interviewer why he was so good at sales, to which he responded, “It’s because I stopped coughing!”

A couple of experts in sales were so confounded by his answer that they decided to examine him more closely. After a while they found that he was actually doing a lot of things really well—he was using a ton of sales tactics brilliantly, he just wasn’t aware of it. He was naturally talented at sales.

The moral of this little story is that the IBM sales guy falsely attributed the reasons for why he was so successful.

So, to go along with the student-master analogy: Would you have the IBM salesman as your master—telling you that you’ll be a successful salesman if you “just stop coughing”—or would you rather have a less successful master who could explain to you exactly what it is that you’re doing wrong and direct you toward the next step in your journey towards success?

I know who I’d choose…

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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