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).

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.

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