The Curse of Knowledge

The more you know about a subject, the harder it becomes to communicate your knowledge to someone who knows nothing about the topic.

“Creativity requires the courage to let go of certainties”    ~ Erich Fromm

Here are some quotes from knowledgeable people – who, history shows, were totally wrong…

  • Everything that can be invented has been invented.  ~ Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office, 1899
  • Sensible and responsible women do not want to vote.   ~ Grover Cleveland (22nd President of the U.S.), 1905
  • Who the hell wants to hear actors talk? ~ Harry M. Warner, Warner Bros Pictures, 1927
  • Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.  ~ Lord Kelvin, President, Royal Society, 1895
  • The horse is here today, but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.  ~ President of Michigan Savings Bank advising against investing in the Ford Motor Company
  • Video won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.  ~ Daryl F. Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, commenting on television in 1946
  • Guitar groups are on the way out, Mr. Epstein.  ~ Dick Rowe of Decca Records, on turning down The Beatles for a recording contract, 1962
  • I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.  ~  Thomas Watson, Chairman of IBM, 1943
Try the “Tappers and Listeners” experiment:Curse of Knowledge

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton earned a Ph.D. in psychology at Stanford by studying a simple game where she assigned people to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.”

Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped. (By the way, this experiment is fun to try at home if there is a good “listener” candidate nearby.)

The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out.

Listeners guessed only 2.5% of the songs—3 songs out of 120.

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology. Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, Newton asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50%.

The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. Go ahead and try it for yourself—tap out “The Star Spangled Banner.” It is impossible to avoid hearing the tune playing along in your head. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune—all they can hear are a bunch of disconnected taps like a kind of bizarre Morse Code.

In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless. How could you be so stupid?

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it is like to lack that knowledge. When they are tapping, they can’t imagine what it is like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create the state of mind of our listeners.

The tapper/listener experiment is reenacted every day across the world. The tappers and listeners are CEOs and frontline employees, politicians and voters, marketers and customers, writers and readers. And, last but not least: Teachers and students. All of these groups rely on ongoing communication, but they suffer from enormous information imbalances, just like the tappers and listeners. When a math teacher unveils “functions” or an English teacher talks about “graceful prose,” there is a tune playing in their heads that the students can’t hear.

It’s a hard problem to avoid—every year, you walk into class with another year’s worth of mental refinement under your belt. You’ve taught the same concepts every year, and every year your understanding gets sharper, your sophistication gets deeper. If you’re a biology teacher, you simply can’t imagine anymore what it’s like to hear the word “mitosis” for the first time, or to lack the knowledge that the body is composed of cells. You can’t unlearn what you already know.

There are, in fact, only two ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge reliably.

The first is not to learn anything.

The second is to take your ideas and transform them. Stickiness is a second language. When you open your mouth and communicate, without thinking about what’s coming out of your mouth, you’re speaking your native language: Expertese. But students don’t speak Expertese. They do speak Sticky, though. Everyone speaks Sticky. In some sense, it’s the universal language. The grammar of stickiness—simplicity, storytelling, learning through the senses—enables anyone to understand the ideas being communicated.