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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…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.
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.
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?
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?
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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