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The Curse of Knowledge

The unseen challenge plaguing your communications — and what you can do about it.

Communication Issues
Image: iStock

In 1990, a Stanford graduate student named Eliza Newton conducted a study involving a simple game. Newton assigned pairs of participants to one of two roles — a “tapper” and a “listener.” The tapper was asked to drum the melody of a well-known song such as “Happy Birthday” with their finger on the table. The listener was asked to guess the song based on the rhythm of the tapper’s finger.

When asked to estimate the likelihood that listeners would successfully guess the song, tappers pegged the probability at 50 percent. The reality? Not even close. Of the more than 120 songs tapped out in the study, listeners guessed correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.

Newton’s study illustrates a concept known as “curse of knowledge.” Coined in a 1989 issue of Journal of Political Economy, the curse of knowledge describes a cognitive bias that occurs when a person communicating with others assumes they have the background knowledge needed to understand a given concept.

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Because the tapper knows the song, they find it impossible not to hear the melody as they tap. The listener, on the other hand, hears only a random series of taps. Similarly, the curse of knowledge posits that once we know something, we find it impossible to imagine not knowing it. We have trouble conveying our message to others because we cannot re-create their state of mind.

Are They Hearing the Music?

Recently, we experienced an issue during database migration at work. The problem had affected some of our customers, and pressure from stakeholders was mounting. From an outside perspective, it was confounding: We were deep into this database migration; why are we still having these issues?

After an in-depth discussion with the technical team, I came to understand the complexity of the path forward and why such issues were still possible. Trying to speed up the migration would incur unacceptable tradeoffs. Progress was slow because the process had to be taken incrementally.

“We’ve been saying this all along,” my colleague lamented. In a sense he was right. Since the planning phase, these concerns had been addressed, but the precise knowledge of just how complex the project was had never fully connected outside of the technical teams. The technical team was hearing the melody; everyone else was hearing taps on the table.

Gaps in knowledge are ubiquitous and unavoidable — we’ve all experienced them. You discover the team hasn’t internalized your new strategic direction. The task you assigned to a coworker didn’t get done correctly. The idea you proposed that you thought was a slam dunk didn’t resonate with the team. The potential customer you thought was a perfect fit goes in a different direction. The answer seems obvious to you, but that’s because you’re hearing the melody. Your audience is only hearing random taps on the table. The question is: How can you make them hear the music?

Close the Gap

Thankfully, there are simple ways to combat the curse of knowledge. First, avoid jargon and instead use the simplest language possible. Consider a rule of thumb from the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman — explain everything as if your audience is 12 years old.

Second, use the written word to convey important topics such as why critical decisions were made, project updates, or issue reports. Writing not only makes the information more accessible, it forces clear thinking.

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Another tip is to avoid using sweeping theoretical conversations when problem-solving, especially in group settings. Focusing your discussions on a small set of specific scenarios or user stories removes ambiguity and quickly gets everyone on the same page.

Finally, using concrete language, imagery, and storytelling are effective ways of avoiding the curse of knowledge. These techniques cut through our tendency to speak in the abstract and force us to get specific about what we’re trying to convey.

Practice using these techniques. Additionally, encourage more mindfulness about the curse of knowledge on your teams. Some simple habit changes combined with more awareness about the curse of knowledge can go a long way toward ensuring everyone can hear the music.