While giving a presentation or explaining a concept on a topic of your expertise, have you ever felt that others just don’t get you?
If so, there’s a good chance that you were influenced by a psychological phenomenon known as the curse of knowledge — overestimating how much less-knowledgeable people know about a subject. It can appear in the form of technical jargon, dense sentences, and concepts that require a deeper understanding.
As such, it can harm your ability to convey ideas and becomes a barrier between you and your audience.
In this article, we’ll look at the curse of knowledge in more detail (while trying to avoid it) and how it influences us.
What Is the Curse of Knowledge?
The curse of knowledge is when an individual assumes that their audience knows as much about a topic as they do, when in fact they don’t.
In other words, when you know something, it’s hard to imagine that others might not.
The term was coined in 1989 in an article by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. They described it as a cognitive bias.
Typically, a person affected by this bias has forgotten the difficulties they faced themselves when learning about the very subject, creating a barrier between the two parties that the message can’t cross.
The curse of knowledge can reduce people’s ability to teach and make them underestimate the time it takes for others to learn, as well as make it difficult to predict their behavior.
For example, senior executives and other managers with years of experience in a particular business may pack all of it inside one presentation, trying to convey it to their less-experienced employees without realizing how little benefit it does.
Tappers and Listeners
In 1990, a psychology graduate from Stanford University demonstrated the curse of knowledge through an experiment. She divided people into two groups and labeled them “tapper” and “listener”. Each of the tappers had to pick a song and tap the rhythm on a table. The listeners had to figure out the song being tapped.
Beforehand, the tappers were asked to predict how often the listeners would be able to guess their song. They thought, on average, that they would guess correctly around 50% of the time. The results, however, showed a very different reality: the listeners got only 3 right out of 120 songs.
The experiment illustrated the curse of knowledge: the tappers were familiar with the tone, so they overestimated how easy it would be to identify. On the other side, the listeners didn’t have much clue what song was being played.
Similarly, when we are well familiar with any topic, our own level of understanding is so obvious to us that we assume others know a great deal more about it than they really do. As such, this issue affects professionals in a wide variety of fields and ranks — managers, teachers, researchers, and many others.
What to Do About It
Since the curse of knowledge is an innate psychological tendency, it likely requires plenty of training to break it. Here are a few points you may consider trying:
Take Different Perspective
Take a step back and see things from a different perspective: think back on how you learned about the topic yourself and what would’ve helped you most when you were less-informed. Then, consider the point of view of your audience and try to match your language and ideas with it.
Now, in order to do this, you first of course have to know your audience. This may be easy if you are explaining something to your peers at work or teaching a class of students, but not necessarily if you are, for example, a marketer trying to explain the features of a product to an unknown audience.
Rely on Feedback
One way to avoid falling prey to the curse of knowledge is to avoid making assumptions about your audience.
Instead, seek to know them better through feedback; ask your audience how well they understood you in previous encounters, what parts were confusing to them, and what you can do better next time.
If you are presenting a new product to your customers, you may ask if they can easily grasp what the product does for them and if there are any functions they can’t use.
This way, you’ll know what to expect and you can ensure effective communication.
Break it Down
Another thing you can do is break your message down into smaller, simpler parts.
For example, if you are giving a presentation and your audience has varying levels of knowledge on the topic, use simple visual diagrams to explain complex ideas.