Breaking the Curse of Knowledge

  • SumoMe

The saying “you can’t un-ring that bell” sums up nicely the concept of the ‘curse of knowledge’.  Once you know something, you can’t un-know it and become unable to regain your pre-knowledge perspective. This can negatively impact the ability for you to deliver a message to someone without the same knowledge.

“The Curse of Knowledge” is a phrase coined by George Loewenstein and it seems like the more I read the smarter this guy becomes.  George, along with Colin Camerer and Martin Weber, wrote a paper that explored the decision making of individuals of differing levels of knowledge. The study specifically looked at if someone could exclude information from the decision making process even if it was in their best interest.  The abstract that I found here implies that it didn’t look good.

As far as what this article is about, and training in general is that we look at the difficulties that a subject matter expert can have articulating knowledge to a novice, to relate to the un-educated perspective.  This is highlighted in a passage of the awesome book, Made to Stick, by Dan and Chip Heath.  It refers to a study where one individual is given the name of a song and they have to tap out the song on a flat surface and try to get their partners to guess it.  The twist comes into play when they asked the ‘tappers’ how confident they were that their partner could guess it.  It was not nearly as likely as they thought.  If you’ve ever played the board/party game Cranium there are tasks called ‘hum-dingers’.  When a player gets these turns they hum a tune to their partner who tries to guess.  The song is so incredibly obvious to the ‘hummer’, (I mean, I was nailing it!) but even with the use of music notes it’s still not a lock that your partner will get it.

Annie Murphy Paul of The Brilliant Blog posted an article on the topic, she refers to it as the ‘Curse of Expertise’ but it sounds the same.  She has a few ways to overcome this issue and be better able to craft your message for learners.  I won’t give them all away but one of my favorite of the 4 is ‘Break it down, then break it down again.’  Paul explains that we should break down the bigger steps into smaller steps in order to draw clear lines from one concept to the next.  I’ve heard of something similar when troubleshooting problems.  If you ask and are able to answer the question ‘why’ 8 times, you’ll be able to get to the actual root cause of any issue.  Then you can apply the antidote from there.  There are 3 other ways to get past it but I suggest you head over to The Brilliant Blog to check them out.

Steven Pinker, a Professor of Psychology and Harvard Professor, looked at a similar topic in a lecture he gave about academic writing (which this is not…).  His message was not to talk down to your audience in what he referred to as ‘motherese.’  He suggested to look at the curse of knowledge as a handicap to overcome and to show your work to a representative of your audience to have them look through it for understanding.  One last suggestion was to take an example of a message you think is perfectly communicated to an audience and dissect it.  Hopefully you’ll be able to see the steps that author took and you’ll be able to apply it to your own situation.

One last look at this is going to come from the book Gamification of Learning and Instruction.  Karl Kapp writes that experts and novices think about problem differently.  He says that while experts look at big picture root causes, novices only look just below the surface.  Maybe we can use our lessons and sessions to teach some big picture thinking.
The Curse of Knowledge is something that we will forever be trying to overcome but we can definitely minimize the impact of it by using taking some of the advice given the very smart people listed above.

2 thoughts on “Breaking the Curse of Knowledge

  1. Hey Dan, thanks for the mention! I just wanted to explain why I used the term “curse of expertise” rather than “curse of knowledge.” The latter can refer to any situation in which a person has learned something and then can’t imagine what it was like not to know it (to use an example from the Heath brothers’ book “Made To Stick,” when you’re tapping out the beat of a particular tune, it’s hard to believe that the person listening to your taps doesn’t immediately know what the song is too–but of course all they’re hearing is a bunch of taps). The curse of expertise, on the other hand, refers specifically to a person who has developed a deep expertise in some area of knowledge (for example, teachers and professors) who then face the problem of putting themselves in a novice’s shoes. A subtle distinction, but a useful one, I think.
    Thanks again for your interest!–Annie

  2. Pingback: TBF029 – Curse of Knowledge, Goofing Around | TRAINING BY FIRE – learning about learning

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