This Thinking Mistake Will Sink Your Communication - THINKERS Notebook

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This Thinking Mistake Will Sink Your Communication

Want to be smacked in the face by the curse of knowledge?

Have kids. Or be in the position of teaching anything to anyone.

You will quickly realize that transferring your knowledge into another brain is not nearly as simple as you probably think it should be.

Which is why the curse of knowledge can be particularly problematic.

And why good teachers are worth their weight in gold.

What is the curse of knowledge?

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias whereby a person who is communicating with another person (or people) assumes that their audience has the background knowledge and context to understand the point being made.

And right there, just by writing that paragraph, I may be falling to prey to the curse of knowledge myself.

Just to understand that paragraph, you:

  • Need to know English.
  • Have to be able to read.
  • Need to know what a "cognitive bias" is.

I'm assuming that you know English and can read. This seems like a safe assumption given that you opted into an email newsletter written in English. If I was unable to safely assume that, this newsletter couldn't even exist.

Hence, combatting the curse of knowledge is not about removing all underlying assumptions.

Any form of communication has to be built on a foundation of certain assumptions to even take place.

But what about that last one?

We've discussed cognitive biases several times before in this newsletter, and it's become a more common topic in the zeitgeist, so my expectation is that you're aware of what they are. But what if you are not?

Well, then I might lose you with that paragraph.

Alternatively, I will have to rely on your willingness to extract understanding from context clues or open a new window to conduct some quick research about it on your own.

Either of those things mayhappen, but it's still a risk on my part as the one attempting to communicate. 

How to combat the curse of knowledge

One way to combat the curse of knowledge in online writing without "dumbing it down" too much for the people who have a more full understanding of the subject matter, is to include a link.

For example, If I simply link to the cognitive bias Wikipedia page (as I did right there), now you have the ability to click and get more information if you need it. Wikipedia itself has trained us to assume that links on keywords will most likely take us somewhere to learn more about that keyword.

This is why the subject of last week's newsletter -- understanding who you are communicating with -- is so important. 

If you don't understand who you're talking to or writing to, then you won't know where the curse of knowledge demarcation line is.

  • Dumb things down too much, and you'll lose more sophisticated audience members.
  • Overwhelm people with terms and concepts they don't know, and you'll lose audience members who don't understand the underlying context.

Good teachers are masters at understanding where this line is, and even being able to adjust for different students.

I'd call it magic ... except that listening, empathy, and thoughtfulness aren't magic; they are skills we all can improve upon with dedicated practice.

So in this week's THINKERS Roundup, you'll find three links that will help you understand the negative effects of the curse of knowledge and how to ensure that you don't fall prey to it (too often) in your own communication.

Why sensible strategies fail

"Many sensible strategies fail to drive action because executives formulate them in sweeping, general language. 'Achieving customer delight!' 'Becoming the most efficient manufacturer!' 'Unlocking shareholder value!'

"One explanation for executives’ love affair with vague strategy statements relates to a phenomenon called the curse of knowledge. Top executives have had years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business, so when they speak abstractly, they are simply summarizing the wealth of concrete data in their heads. But frontline employees, who aren’t privy to the underlying meaning, hear only opaque phrases.

"As a result, the strategies being touted don’t stick"

Read: The Curse of Knowledge (Chip and Dan Heath for Harvard Business Review)

Learn from the marketers (who get paid to understand who they are targeting)

"What can we do to lift the curse? The answer is as simple as you think: improved communication.

"As I noted in a post about the Dunning-Kruger effect last year, people who aren't well-informed are nevertheless quite likely to feel confident in their opinions, because they don’t know enough to question their own unearned confidence. Similarly, the unrecognized assumption that your partner knows your mind, or can premise their opinions on information you haven't communicated, is likely to leave you feeling as though you've been clear about your wants and needs when you haven’t.

"In that post, I recommended questioning your own assumptions and certainties, to make sure your decisions are not limited by concepts you haven’t yet learned — or even by unconscious processes: Evading the curse of knowledge works in a similar way. Whenever you assume that something is obvious to all parties, you’re likely to leave yourself open to ambiguity."

Read: What's the Curse of Knowledge, and How Can You Break It? (Pyschology Today)

The best practitioners don't always make the best teachers.

"Note that accounting for the curse of knowledge can be beneficial when it helps you understand and predict people’s behavior, including your own, even in situations where you don’t reduce this bias. For example, understanding the curse of knowledge can help you select instructors more effectively, by realizing that one instructor having more expertise than another could actually make the expert instructor worse at teaching."

Read: The Curse of Knowledge: A Difficulty in Understanding Less-Informed Perspectives (Effectiviology)

Quote of the week

"The better you know something, the less you remember about how hard it was to learn. The curse of knowledge is the single best explanation I know of why good people write bad prose.”  

-- Steven Pinker