The curse of knowledge syndrome

The “curse of knowledge” occurs when a person has such mature and advanced knowledge in a specific area that he cannot remember what it’s like to not have this knowledge. This makes it harder to identify with people who don’t have this knowledge base. It also inhibits our ability to explain things in a manner that is easily understandable to someone who is a novice.

Some examples will help.

  • I learned to read music when I was 18 years old. Forty-eight years ago. Currently, when I direct an amateur choir I sometimes get frustrated at mistakes the singers make because I have forgotten what it’s like to not be able to read music. 
  • When I turned 60 my personal physician told me to start taking a baby aspirin every day. I asked, “What is a baby aspirin?” He looked at me like I had just fallen off the back of a turnip truck. He knew what a baby aspirin is, but I didn’t.
  • In graduate school I took a course in statistics. The professor was a well-known expert, but he was a bad teacher. He knew the material so well and had for so many years, he just couldn’t fathom what it was like to not know principles of statistics. I ended up dropping the course.

When you suffer from the curse of knowledge you assume that other people know what you know, which causes you to think that people understand you a lot better than they really do.

In an article published in the Harvard Business Review, December 2006, Chip and Dan Heath wrote: 

“In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener.’ Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as ‘Happy Birthday,’ and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.

“Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?

“When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.

“The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.”

Applications

  1. When you’re functioning in your area of expertise—particularly if you’re relating to people who are not expert in your field—don’t fall prey to the curse of knowledge. Try to communicate to them as if you had just learned the subject.
  2. Periodically, enter into situations in which you’re the beginner, and remember what it’s like to be the neophyte.
  3. Our understanding of the “curse of knowledge” syndrome should inform our approach to communication, reminding us of how very difficult it is to communicate well (“What I’m saying is clear in my mind; why aren’t you getting it?”). 

The first step to avoiding the curse is to recognize that it exists and how difficult it is to overcome. Psychologist Steven Pinker said, “Anyone who wants to lift the curse of knowledge must first appreciate what a devilish curse it is. Like a drunk who is too impaired to realize that he is too impaired to drive, we do not notice the curse because the curse prevents us from noticing it.”

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Have a bias toward action

Lee Iacocca was an iconic leader in the American car manufacturing industry. When he was at Ford Motor company he introduced the Mustang (1964). Good decision. When he took over the failing Chrysler Motor company (1979), bold designs and decisions were needed. He introduced the minivan – a practical vehicle never seen before. Another bold and wise decision.

Here’s my favorite Iacocca story:

During the time that Chrysler was crawling back from the brink of bankruptcy, Iacocca felt that consumers would respond well to a convertible. He asked his head of engineering how long it would take to make a convertible for him to test-market; the engineer told Iacocca—three years.  Iacocca wanted it immediately so he told his engineers to go to the assembly line, pull a car off the line, take a saw, and cut the top off. That only took about four hours. That afternoon, Iacocca drove the topless sedan around town. It got so much attention and so many favorable comments that Iacocca was convinced that bringing back a convertible would be a huge boost to Chrysler profits. It was.

There are several lessons to learn from this story (for example, leaders make bold decisions) but the one I want to home in on is: leaders have a bias toward action.

We’ve all heard the adage—ready, aim, fire—which sounds like a logical sequence of events, but sometimes we get transfixed on the aim element. Some organizations (and individuals) get bogged down by over-analyzing and over-thinking details and options. Paralysis by analysis sets in; nothing gets done. 

Perhaps we should consider: ready, fire, aim.

Often, there’s value in acting–just do something. Then you can learn from your actions and make course corrections as problems arise. Sometimes it’s better to do something, even if it is wrong, than get trapped in passivity. It’s difficult to steer a stationary bike; start pedaling and then negotiate direction.

Critics of this approach would warn against the dangers of being impulsive, reckless, and careless. I understand.

As usual, the best path is probably somewhere in the middle: avoid both impulsiveness and inaction. But my suggestion is to have a bias toward action. 

Consider again, Iacocca’s insistence on having a convertible to test-drive—immediately. I can’t see any downside. Just cut off the top of a car so the concept can be tested–immediately.

Note to leaders: Through the years I’ve observed that good leaders share a common trait: they take initiative. They have an agenda. They like forward motion. They are bothered by lethargy. They envision a better future and are impatient about getting there. They have a bias toward action. 

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Look farther down the road

I recently read a Q&A on quora.com, a website where people ask questions and anyone can answer. Someone asked: “What can we learn about driving a car from professional drivers?”

An insightful answer was: “My wife gave me the two-day Porsche Driving School course for an anniversary present. It was a fun experience and I learned a lot of things. 

“One lesson that stuck with me was the idea of looking where you want to go (in the distance) rather than immediately in front of you. Most drivers focus on the space 10–30 feet in front of their car where the immediate action is, but then you’re not prepared for major changes. The instructors told us to focus about 100–300 feet or more in front of where you are and drive to that moving destination. While looking into the distance, our peripheral vision will naturally pick up what is happening closer in.”

There’s a good life-lesson in this anecdote. 

In life, we’re often short-sighted. Instead of “looking farther down the road” we focus on the immediate. Activities that demand our attention (alleged emergencies) get it, and they distract us from more important thoughts, like planning our future. 

  • On a regular basis, take the time to think about the future. What do you want to do and be six months from now? Two years from now? Ten years? Spend time thinking about long-term goals instead of just negotiating short-term issues.  
  • In your conversations, notice where the conversation is and where it should go. Then steer the discussion toward that destination. 
  • Instead of getting stuck in the moment, continually think about the near-future. Even projecting 4-6 hours in the future is beneficial. 

For more on this topic, I recommend Steven Johnson’s book titled Farsighted. It is a terrific, engaging book that gives practical advice about how to “look farther down the road.”

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Focus on making fewer, more important decisions

In an interview with Vanity Fair, former president Obama said, “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing, because I have too many other decisions to make.”

He went on to explain that, as Commander in Chief, the act of making a decision, especially minor ones, erodes your ability to make later decisions. Psychologists call it decision fatigue.

Decision fatigue is the deteriorating quality of decisions made by an individual after a long session of decision making. It is now understood as one of the causes of making bad decisions.  For instance, judges in court have been shown to make poorer-quality decisions later in the day than they do early in the day. Decision fatigue explains why shopping for groceries can be so exhausting and may adversely affect our ability to make more important decisions. 

Here are some ideas to think about.

Make a few major decisions that will preempt having to make multiple minor decisions.

Obama made a major decision—wear only gray or blue suits—which eliminated the need to make wardrobe decisions every morning. Private schools often facilitate the same advantage by requiring students to wear uniforms. Steve Jobs limited his wardrobe to bluejeans and a black turtleneck shirt.

About eight years ago I made a major decision to limit my personal belongings to fewer than 100 items. (See my post titled Enough is Enough.) I currently have 85 objects. This self-imposed restriction has opened up a new space in my life. I seldom go shopping (saving time), I am immune to advertising and marketing ploys (saving mental energy), and I spend very little money on stuff. This one major life-decision eliminates the need to make many smaller decisions. (And it helps me avoid these extremes: The average woman makes 301 trips to the store annually, spending close to 400 hours a year shopping. This amounts to 8.5 years spent shopping during a typical lifespan (NY Daily News).  Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).

Notice how these major decisions would simplify your life.  

    • My family and I are going to be active in a local church. 
    • I’m not going to eat processed food.
    • I’ll check my email only four times a day.
    • My expenses will not exceed my income. 

Focus on important decisions.

By limiting his wardrobe choices, Obama could concentrate on more important decisions—responding to the latest threat from Kim Jong-un, or helping craft the Paris Climate Agreement.

Sometimes I catch myself obsessing over minor decisions, particularly monetary ones (I am frugal; sometimes to a fault). Recently, I wasted 20 minutes of my life choosing between different styles and prices of ink pens. I should have devoted that time to writing another blog post.  

Some people expend more brain-resources selecting their lunch entrée than they do choosing and directing the topic of conversation around the table. 

Identify and focus on major decisions; make minor decisions quickly or delegate them to someone else.

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Find joy in the journey

Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing. Shakespeare

I’ve always been an advocate of goal-setting, for two reasons. Setting and achieving goals leads to progress; it makes us effective. If you aim at nothing you will always hit it. People who don’t set goals often just meander through life. Their lives resemble the movement of a ball in a pinball machine—randomly ricocheting from one stop to another and then finally dropping out of sight.  

Another benefit of setting and working toward goals is that the process we go through to accomplish goals gives our lives meaning.

Psychologist Richard Davidson identifies “pre-goal attainment positive affect” which is the pleasurable feeling you get as you make progress toward a goal, and “post-goal attainment positive affect” which comes once you have achieved your goal. The feeling of the latter is contentment, but it is fleeting and short-lived. The feeling of the former is progress and it can be consistent and longer lasting. 

In his must-read book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes, “Set for yourself any goal you want. Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more trilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack at the end of a long hike. We can call this ‘the progress principle’: Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them” (page 84).

The pleasure and happiness derived from the journey can be enjoyed even if the goal is mundane and even insignificant. For instance, I’m finding great joy in planting a small vineyard in East Texas. It will never be financially rewarding and the wine will not be notable (it’s difficult to produce great wine in North Texas), but I have thoroughly enjoyed planning the project and making it happen. Three years from now, when I bottle my first vintage, I’m sure we’ll celebrate, but the consistent joy will have been in the journey. [I started the vineyard in March of 2018. See below for pictures taken July 2018.]

Interestingly, the journey can be rewarding even if you don’t achieve the goal. I’ve read about entrepreneurial startups that did not work but provided an enjoyable and beneficial experience for those who were involved in the process.

So, I ask my readers: What are you working on? What goals are you pursuing? Enjoy the journey.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.