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TalkTalk. Photo by Wynand van Poortvliet on Unsplash

Want to improve your communication? Heard about the Curse of Knowledge?

How to recognize and fight this cognitive bias

Sebastian Martin
Jan 22, 2018 · 4 min read

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.

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”.

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.

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.

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.

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The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Sebastian Martin

Written by

Coaching for Communication & Innovation | Data Visualization Expert | Writer and reader | Lifelong Learner, from Munich.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

Sebastian Martin

Written by

Coaching for Communication & Innovation | Data Visualization Expert | Writer and reader | Lifelong Learner, from Munich.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +756K people. Follow to join our community.

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