The Curse of Knowledge

Have you had a teacher or professor who was very smart, but terrible at teaching the material? Maybe they had the curse of knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge

Have you had a teacher or professor who was very smart, but terrible at teaching the material? Or, have you met a complete expert who uses so much jargon that you could not follow their explanation? In 1989, economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber coined the phrase "curse of knowledge" to describe this plight.

This is a cognitive bias that happens when someone incorrectly assumes that others have enough background to understand. For example, that one smart professor might not remember the challenges of being a young student when learning a new subject.

It might be asked whether this failure to empathize with ourselves in a more ignorant state is not paralleled by a failure to empathize with outcome-ignorant others. — Baruch Fischhoff

The Research

Interestingly, business research suggests that sales people who are better informed about a product are actually at a disadvantage compared to less-informed sales people. Why? Better-informed sales people do not adjust their pitch to the level of their customers. Since the knowledge gap is smaller between less-informed sales people and their customers, they find it easier to connect and persuade.

Avoid the Curse

There are three ways to avoid the curse of knowledge. The main idea is to constantly question your assumptions about how much your audience knows.

  1. Know your audience. When talking to potential customers, try to gauge how much they know. The same goes for a friend or colleague — assess the extent of their knowledge before giving an explanation.
  2. Show, do not tell. Instead of a lengthy explanation, try creating a visual or graph that conveys the same information in a more digestible way. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
  3. Get a fresh perspective. Have you created something new? Ask for honest feedback from someone who has never seen it before. How much did they understand? Did anything feel confusing to them?

This is also a great way to reinforce your knowledge. The Feynman Technique is similar because it is the process of reinforcing your knowledge by figuratively "explaining it to a child." If you cannot explain something without using complicated words and phrases, you are probably not as familiar with it as you think.

Instead of relying on memory to give an incomplete explanation, start from scratch and create a new version of the material yourself.

Have you ever come across someone with the curse of knowledge? Let me know in the comments below!