The Curse of Knowledge

Illustration of a doodle in a top hat showing a material to another doodle, saying "Does this make sense to you, madam?" and getting the reply "Nope. Not at all." while 2 doodles with top hats in the background say "But I thought it was perfect!" and "Nooooo!!!"

Here at We ❤ Health Literacy Headquarters, we always check with medical experts to make sure the health communication materials we develop are accurate. These experts are essential to the process — they have the knowledge and experience to know the ins and outs of a health topic.

But when you’re immersed in anything for a long time, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world, well, isn’t. And that’s where the curse of knowledge comes in. The more you know about a particular health topic, the harder it is to think about it from someone else’s perspective — especially if that someone knows less about the topic than you. (The Heath brothers explain this in depth in their book Made to Stick.)

It happens all the time. Remember when you got all the way to the end of a hilarious story about a _______, only to have your listener say, “What’s a _______?” with a confused look. Don’t worry, dear readers — we’ve been there, too.

As health communicators, it’s our job to be on the lookout for the curse of knowledge. You might see it pop up on a project when you’re on the ninth round of edits from the medical expert. Or when you realize that your material is full of multisyllabic jargon (not that you would ever allow that to happen).

Whenever you feel the curse of knowledge creeping in, ask yourself and your experts to take a step back and remember your target audience. Ask, “What’s it like to learn about this topic for the first time?” Or, even better, quickly test the content with members of your target audience.

The bottom line: Watch out for the curse of knowledge. Test with your audience to make sure your materials are understandable.