Want to improve your communication? Heard about the Curse of Knowledge?
How to recognize and fight this cognitive bias
You might have heard the term “The Curse of Knowledge” in various contexts.
It describes a situation in which one party has more implicit knowledge about a certain topic and how this affects effective communication. I’d like to show you how to recognize it and what to do with it in order to avoid misunderstandings.
Fundamentally, the problem lies in a cognitive bias, that is an (unconscious) pre-formed way of thinking.
Once you know something, have experienced or seen something, you cannot forget it voluntarily.
It’s there in your head. Now you want to share this knowledge or experience, so let’s call you the teacher and your partner the student (regardless of whether is the actual relationship).
For you, the teacher, whatever you know is obvious, but you can’t unlearn it. It’s extremely hard to remember what it was like without this knowledge. Trying to communicate the information quickly becomes frustrating for both sides: the teacher says “It’s obvious, why don’t they understand it?” And the student says “This is really hard; how will I ever understand this?”
There was an interesting experiment carried out some 30 years ago, where the participants were divided into two groups: one group was the “tappers”, the other group the “listeners”.
They paired up and the tappers were to choose a familiar, easy song (such as “Happy Birthday” or “Jingle Bells”). They were then to tap out the song with a finger only. The listeners had to guess what song was tapped.
The tappers had to write down what percentage they reckoned was recognized by their listeners. The numbers were interesting: tappers thought that half of the songs were identifiable by their listeners, but the actual number was only 2.5%.
Almost no one was able to guess the song from mere tapping.
However, the ones who already knew their song (and heard it in their head) couldn’t un-hear it and thought that it must be obvious. After all, they had the knowledge right there, how could the listener not guess it?
Once you know about the problem, you see it everywhere.
Lectures starting in a place that is logical to the teacher, but not at all to the students.
Functionality on software that might seem logical to the designer, but not obvious at all to the user.
Ways to use machines and other equipment that might make sense when the engineer built it but leads to angry customers who can’t use their devices.
It comes up when using one-dimensional communication like text messaging.
You, the sender, know how you feel and what you meant by your message, but your words might have a very different effect on the reader, who only reads the words and can’t see your face or know your intentions.
We all know situations where this led to negative results — a true “mis-understanding”.
Paradoxically, the only solution might be to communicate even more.
In design and user experience research, it’s talking to the user and examining their actions.
How do they perceive the thing you built?
Are they using the correct buttons, looking at the right thing?
It’s the same in a lecture.
Does everyone have a similar understanding of the topic?
Are there concepts that need to be explained first, ideas that are logical to you, but not always to the listeners?
Are you referring to some text, concept or other knowledge that the listeners might not share?
What other means of communication can you use besides language and writing?
Sometimes, restating even small and seemingly bits of knowledge can foster tremendous understanding.
By the way, inside jokes work the same way: only the ones who have had similar experiences will see the humor in a joke or situation. It’s really the same with knowledge!
Be aware of the curse of knowledge in your communication. Choose to be more concise, explain more background (or ask if the background is known), don’t assume too much.
Thanks for reading.