May 11th, 2010

The Curse of Knowledge

By Stuart Krueger | Comments (1)
If you’re new to a position and need help understanding a concept, who do you ask?  Do you ask a seasoned veteran, somebody who’s seen it all, or do you ask a fellow green horn with modest experience? You’d probably opt to ask the more experienced coworker, but you might not be doing yourself a favor.

The Buzz-Phrase with a Cool Name

In a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, authors Colin Cramer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber introduce a phenomenon known as the Curse of Knowledge. Their description of this phenomenon is framed in the context of economics.
“Better-informed agents are unable to ignore private information even when it is in their interests to do so.”
In the book “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Stick and Others Die”, authors (and sibling duo) Chip and Dan Heath provide a second, more universal interpretation. An excerpt from that book, which I have shamelessly re-quoted from Tom Johnson’s technical communications blog, describes the Curse of Knowledge but stops short of defining it:
"And that brings us to the villain of our book: The Curse of Knowledge. Lots of research in economics and psychology shows that when we know something, it becomes hard for us to imagine not knowing it. As a result, we become lousy communicators. Think of a lawyer who can’t give you a straight, comprehensible answer to a legal question. His vast knowledge and experience renders
[caption id="" align="alignleft" width="150" caption="Cover via Amazon"]Cover of [/caption] him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.
Here’s the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge: The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That’s why knowledge is a curse. But notice we said “unnatural,” not “impossible.” Experts just need to devote a little time to applying the basic principles of stickiness. JFK dodged the Curse [with “put a man on the moon in a decade”]. If he’d been a modern-day politician or CEO, he’d probably have said, “Our mission is to become the international leader in the space industry, using our capacity for technological innovation to build a bridge towards humanity’s future.” That might have set a moon walk back fifteen years.”
Drawing from extensive research regarding what make makes an idea ‘stick’, the Heath brothers have settled on six principles; Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotions, and Stories. Thanks to bloggers like George Ambler of, we have an informative summary of each principle just a click away.

Concrete vs Abstract

Realizing that my frivolous attempt to get you to read yet another blog post has likely failed, I will summarize the concreteness principle (as George does in his article) with a question.  “How do we make our ideas clear?” Good question, George.  Dan of provides great advice:
“To rid yourself of the curse, you have to re-familiarize yourself with the thought patterns of those non-experts. Dig deep into your memory and try to remember what it was like to not be an expert. Get comfortable in that mind-state and structure your future communications around the idea that everyone else is in that mind-state. This doesn’t mean you have to dumb-down your communications; just start at that baseline level and scale up as the audience dictates. You have to be able to slide along the scale all the way from super-detailed to executive-level overview.”
Have you ever seen a presentation that uses an acronym several times but never defines it?  How frustrating is that!?  Defining each acronym you use and avoiding unecessary jargon are two simple ways to make your communication less abstract.

So who do you ask?

It depends on on your intentions.  The expert might be able to tell you everything about a process, but his level of detail or use of jargon might confuse you.  The new production engineer on the block might not know all the details about the process (yet), but he or she should be able to explain on a level that you can understand. For example, if you intend the learn everything there is to know about paper towel manufacturing, ask an engineer who makes it on a day to day basis - better yet ask the Brawny Man™.  If your intentions are to help your 9-year-old son with his science report on 'how paper is made', may I suggest browsing the holy grail of conclusive, peer reviewed, and jargon-free explanations - Wikipedia.

Where have you experienced the Curse of Knowledge lately?

Tree of knowledge image: / CC BY-NC 2.0
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One Response to “The Curse of Knowledge”

  1. ehorahan says:

    I find that talking to the seasoned veterans gives me all sorts of insight into the "political" reasons some decisions are made and how those decisions have effected everything else. It helps me to see the big picture – all the shades of grey.

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