The Curse of Knowledge – Why Communication at Work Is Sometimes Difficult


Once you know something, it's difficult to imagine what it is like to not know it. It's called the "curse of knowledge," and it is the root of many different workplace problems. It affects communication between employees and with customers, and it can cause all your good intentioned new products to fail. It's why designing for someone who isn't like you can be so difficult.

The curse of knowledge was explored in 1990 by a PhD candidate named Elizabeth Newton.

For her dissertation, Newton asked participants to tap the rhythm of a well-known tune. The tappers predicted that listeners would be able to identify the songs 50 percent of the time, whereas in reality the listeners could only figure out the tune about 3 percent of the time. The reason for the disconnect, Kruger says, is that tappers would inevitably "hear" the whole, orchestrated tune in their minds as they tapped, whereas listeners heard only an irregular series of taps.

The tappers had WAY too much confidence that listeners would understand their tapping.

The concept was further explored in a paper last year entitled "EgoCentrism Over Email: Can We Communicate As Well As We Think?" The paper examines a study showing that email readers don't pick up on sarcasm and other tonal aspects of writing as much as the writer believes they will.

I struggle with this when I talk to business people, because I frequently forget that most people haven't read business books covering all the major management theories, business models, and marketing strategies. Mrs. Businesspundit came home from work one day several years ago and said that her boss was supposed to read about the "balanced scorecard" but had never heard of it. She was surprised that she knew more about it than her boss. I wondered how someone could study business and not at least hear the term and have a general idea of what it means (at a general level, it has to do with measuring your company on dimensions other than just profit).

How to Pick the Right Job For You

I'm not entirely sure how to solve the curse of knowledge, but I do have some suggestions. First, create a culture that is open to questions. Nothing is worse than sitting in a meeting and only partially understanding the subject matter because of all the acronyms and industry slang people use. Encourage people to speak up when they don't understand something. Teaching is part of being a good manager. Secondly, try to take small steps, not big intuitive leaps. If I say that liquor stores generally have good returns, many of you will say "of course they do, liquor licenses are limited, and that's a barrier to entry." Not everyone will make the connection that quickly though. They many need to understand what barriers to entry are, why they lead to higher profits, and that government licenses (when limited) can be a good barrier to entry. Take the time to explain each step.

When it comes to designing new products, the curse of knowledge is even more harmful. My personal solution to this has always been to think of myself as an actor, and to create a persona that is in the target demographic. Then I try to think about how I interact with the product or service if I am that person. Over time, as I watch real users, I get a better understanding of that mindset.

For more discussion, check out these links.

  • Alas, communicators always think we’re doing a great job. That’s why checking for understanding and then following up to see if that understanding shows itself in action is so important

  • Jay

    Your “actor” concept is the same thing used in good interface design for software, as promulgated by Alan Cooper, father of Visual Basic. You basically boil down to one persona (or very few) and make up a back story for that user and figure out how to make the interface easy for that one person, rather than trying to be all things to all people, or too many things, and forget your real target.

  • I run into this sometimes when I am teaching a certification prep class for HR people. I will be moving along at a pretty good pace explaining something when suddenly it dawns on me that half the people in the class don’t have the foundation knowledge to understand what I am talking about. Even we you are discussing a subject that you would assume everyone in the class would have some knowledge of you often get suprised at the lack of knowledge.. sometimes blows me away…

  • Eric C

    Good points. I very much like the idea of the “actor” and getting into character to better relate to your audience.

    The Heath brothers wrote a paper on the Curse of Knowledge that is available from Harvard Business Review and they go deeper into the subject in their new book, Made to Stick.

  • Rob

    “Made to Stick” is actually where I read about it for the first time. I’ll be reviewing it in the next few weeks sometime, but wanted to get the idea out there b/c it intrigued me.

  • designing wikis is probably the only solution to the knowledge explosion. It makes a central, correctable repository that everyone feeds into. Password protected, sure, to prevent outside access, but the knowlege has to be pooled into one place.

    And as for email being an adhoc solution, don’t get me started! When a reply consists on nothing more than a forward with “read this” … meaningful communication has gone out the window.

    Fascinating area, and glad you brought it up.


  • This topic seems to be a popular one in blogosphere… :)
    I’ve pondered over it too…here –

  • A Cardinal Rule of speechwriting (at least this speechwriter) is know the audience, assume nothing and always, always keep it simple and entertaining.

  • Read this book recently. I believe that this problem lies also in the fact that we want to sound intelligent and sophisticated to some folks. Though it is done at a sub-concious level, the impression we want to leave forces us to be complex at a certain level. Have you noticed some folks repeatedly say ‘you understand what I am saying, right’ is another of those sub-concious behavioral attribute we all share. There, I just did it here.