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102 Key Principles for Success

Principle 68 - The Curse of Knowledge

I first heard about the Curse of Knowledge from a book called Made to Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath. It's rated 4.7 out of 5 stars on Amazon.com, which is pretty, pretty, pretty good, so you should get it and read it. You won't be disappointed.

The Curse of Knowledge (CoK), and by the way I'm not crazy about the name, is a cognitive bias that says, it's hard to teach when you have knowledge that others don't have." Let me repeat that "It's hard to teach when you have knowledge because you make assumptions that the other person understands you."

This is demonstrated through something called, "the tapping game." One person taps a song on their lap and the other person has to guess the song. The person doing the tapping will think how obvious the song is and how easy it is to guess the answer. The person guessing the song will have a harder time than the tapper expects. Here is an example of a song I tapped (Play Sound). As I listen to the sound I'm sure you're gonna guess it. Post it on twitter #KP4S mentioning @Alecberg and I'll let you know if you're right.

This curse can also be seen, when writing and viewing a to-do list. Say you write a to-do list or note in January and don't see it until March. When viewing the list, you might not understand what some items mean. This is because when you wrote the task you had many assumptions about it. In the future time, those assumptions and knowledge might not have been retained. Therefore, the task that says "Save the CNOPD," might not be meaningful to you now, but at the time you wrote it, it was pretty obvious.

Another example is when teaching, how to use a piece of software. Many advanced users become familiar with shortcuts. But, this is not a good way to teach. It makes it harder for a beginner to remember how to perform the task. The teacher may know hundreds of shortcuts but these will be overwhelming to the new student. This is due to the teacher learning these over a long period of time.

A third example is when writing software. You start small and add functions over time. In the future, the software might become very complicated but the developer doesn't see it that way. This is because they were exposed to it slowly. If a new person tries to understand the software it will be very difficult. The creator has gotten knowledge slowly over time but he will try to convey too much information too quickly and will overwhelm the student.

Another example is commenting of programming code. For you non-programmers, this is a way of explaining what the code does, why and how it does it in standard English. While you write code it's easy and obvious what, why and how it works. But pick up the code a few weeks later and it will be hard to understand.

Writing also has the Curse of Knowledge. When you write, you make assumptions about the content. If you read your prose a day, week or month later, you might no longer have the same assumptions. Also, others may not know what you are talking about as there can be a failure to introduce concepts or acronyms which are obvious to you but not to others.

When your boss assigns a task to you, there is often a Curse of Knowlege taking place. They may have been in a number of meetings and read many memos on a subject. When they talk to you about it they assume you have the same knowledge as them. If they're a good boss they will be okay when you point this out. But many bosses will get angry and think, "he should know this."

When you start a new job there is often a Curse of Knowledge. Many companies have their own language that will take many months to become familiar with. They will use system names you don't know, people names you haven't met and often only the first name. They will use acronyms that aren't defined on Google.

I'm in a meeting and someone uses the term PV which I know is an acronym for Present Value. Now I'm not as familiar with this term as I'm familiar with the word "chair." I have an idea of what it means. This word then causes my brain to miss the next thing that's said and if another of this type of concept is mentioned then I tune out. The only thing I can do now is to ignore or write down additional terms I don't understand.

Showing too much information to a student at one time is also from the curse of knowledge. Since the information is obvious to you, you can talk about it for a long time. But the student can get overwhelmed quickly if they're not given enough time to absorb the material. The teacher may have taken literally 30 years to acquire their knowledge, but the student can have seconds.

There is also the problem that people don't ask questions when they don't understand for many reasons such as:
  • Fear of appearing stupid
  • Fear of being detected in not having the appropriate skills
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Not knowing if others in class also don't understand
  • Different skill levels of students
  • Fear of getting fired
  • Fear of creating a negative confirmation bias
And one final example is when you ask someone for directions. They have the curse and will give you a long list of impossible to remember instructions. "Go down 3 blocks and make a left at the first gas station with a blue awning. I'm not sure it's blue, it may be green. Then go 2 more blocks to the 7-11 and make a left, then there will be a red sign ..."

Some solutions to the curse of knowledge:
  • Write down terms you don't understand and look them up or get a co-worker to help you
  • Have systems that allow anonymous questions in meetings and people can click that they also have the question
  • Have an employee who is an "in-between." They can receive requests for knowledge from anyone and get the person who has the answer
  • They are responsible for creating one-pagers on any topic that people don't understand
  • Record PC screens and voice if the answer is complex.
  • Think about meetings you attend that others don't
  • What websites or documents are these employees looking at
  • Make people aware of where the information is and reward people who contribute to it
One idea I have, to solve this issue, is to have a person whose job it is to deal with the curse of knowledge. They will fill in the missing knowledge and allow people to talk with them or send requests anonymously and collect all the acronyms, concepts and company-speak that's needed to communicate. Often the information is available but doesn't get to the needed parties.

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