The Curse of Knowledge

“Don’t let what you know get in the way of what you don’t.” – Lee Brooks (me!)

Knowledge is definitely a good thing, but it can sometimes lead us astray. For instance, there are two ways I can think of, in this very moment, in which knowledge can be a curse:

  • Our knowledge can lead us to assume that other people have an equivalent understanding, when they don’t
  • Our knowledge can lead us to assume that we know everything we need to, when we don’t

Both of these can have serious repercussions, so they’re worth examining in a bit of detail.

(I suppose a third option is the situation of analysis paralysis, but to me that’s more an outcome of information overload than knowledge overload. Feel free to disagree.)

Assuming People Know What You Know

Recently, a teammate and I were carpooling to a soccer match, chatting about this and that. At some point, I used junk DNA as a metaphor for something (in retrospect, I can’t imagine what bore an abstract resemblance to junk DNA…maybe poor computer code?). Instead of this metaphor making the actual subject clearer, it caused an interesting (to me, at least) tangent when my accomplice said “What’s junk DNA?”. I know that I have extremely diverse interests, I spend more time reading than most people, and I watch science and nature documentaries every chance I get, so I try in general not to assume people know what I’m talking about. But…I just thought everyone knows what junk DNA is. I guess not.

While in this instance the false assumption was identified as such (when my friend indicated that he didn’t know what I meant) and there was no downside, that isn’t always the case. Often in the real world our assumptions can lead to real problems – we say something and assume that people understand, or we make references that are intended to clarify and they only confused – that, if left unaddressed, can have serious consequences.

Years ago I stumbled upon an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) called The Curse of Knowledge; from that article:

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.

In the business world, managers and employees, marketers and customers, corporate headquarters and the front line, all rely on ongoing communication but suffer from enormous information imbalances, just like the tappers and listeners.

We make assumptions about our audience’s knowledge, and we do so to our own detriment. When I’m talking to customers, I make sure to ask questions to gauge their level of understanding and I explain (or quickly review) all but the most basic concepts. For many of my customers, English is not their first language, so a little bit of explanation is welcomed.

I recognized early in school – like, back in elementary school – that people have been socially conditioned to avoid asking questions for fear of ridicule. I noticed early in my professional life that the same tendencies hold true; people don’t ask questions, often because they assume that they’re the only one in the room who doesn’t understand.

I recognized early in school that people have been socially conditioned to avoid asking questions for fear of ridicule. I noticed early in my professional life that the same tendencies hold true.

More often than not, this assumption is false…especially when the topics are domain-specific or the person speaking is just being a know-it-all ass.

To avoid the pointless inefficiencies and confusion that arise from these situations, there are plenty of meetings in which I’ll ask “Does everyone know what X is?” or I’ll just straight-up ask “What do you mean by X?” even if I already know. Not only am I trying to get some knowledge shared, but I’m also trying to set an example that it’s OK to ask questions. A hell of a lot of problems could be avoided if people were just a little more inquisitive and a little less afraid of appearing silly.

Assuming You Know Everything When You Don’t

Recently, a friend told me about a situation in which a subject matter expert (SME) had been asked to weigh in with analysis and interpretation of some information. He did so, and provided a number of recommendations as a result. Upon final review of the SME’s findings, just before they were to be sent to a wide audience as instructions, a reviewer caught a number of mistakes – significant ones that would lead people astray. Worse, these mistakes were all avoidable – they were contradicted by the very material with which the SME had been provided.

In this case, the SME had fallen victim to the second curse of knowledge: he assumed that he knew it all already and didn’t have to review a resource with which he had been supplied. He had let what he knew get in the way of what he didn’t. As a result, he hadn’t bothered reading the new material and instead had just based all his recommendations on what was already in his head.

Thankfully, the mistakes were caught – but only just barely – before his recommendations were relayed to the field.

My friend’s account reminded me of a quote from Leo Tolstoy:

“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not yet formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” – Leo Tolstoy

In the book Obliquity, John Kay talks of people who “strive towards answers that were formed in their mind even before they encountered the problem” (p135).

It is extremely dangerous for us to think that we know everything, and to turn away new information. Remember…

K'naan - Take a Minute


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,
Posted in Careers, Leadership, Marketing
2 comments on “The Curse of Knowledge
  1. […] readers (again, I thank you) will know that I’ve written about the curse of knowledge […]

What do *you* think?

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address and get posts delivered straight to your inbox.

%d bloggers like this: