The curse of knowledge – part 4

I’ve written before on the curse of knowledge

In this post I’ll talk about yet another way that our personal knowledge can often be a hinderance in our personal relationships.

What do these scenarios have in common?

    • Mary and I served a good California chardonnay at a dinner party we hosted for friends. Someone made a nice comment about the wine and I responded, “It is nice, but I should have served it about five degrees cooler.”
    • At Sunday brunch, someone commented on how much they enjoyed the instrumental group that had played in the morning worship service. My response was, “Yes, they are a talented group. They struggled with intonation in the first service but were spot on in the second service.”
    • In a staff meeting, I corrected someone’s pronunciation of a foreign term. It interrupted the flow of conversation, may have embarrassed the speaker, and made me look like a pompous backside. 

Here’s the challenge I’m talking about: When we’re knowledgeable in a certain area, we’re more likely to notice errors that are made in that domain, both by us and by others. Which is a good thing; that’s what we’ve been trained to do. But there are potential downsides. 

      • Our expertise can cause us to be needlessly critical in our thinking. 
      • We may unnecessarily share our critical thoughts with others.
      • We may become inappropriately critical of others. 
      • Our heightened sensitivity to mistakes may impede our own and other people’s enjoyment of experiences.

For instance, in the first example given above, I’m a wine expert so I couldn’t help but notice that the wine was served a bit too warm, but I didn’t need to share that with our guests. By emphasizing the issue, I probably sullied my guests’ opinion of the wine and even my own. 

In the second example, I’m a professional musician so I can’t help but notice when mistakes are made in a public performance, but there was no benefit in voicing my observations to others. And, noticing and focusing on the error might have even prevented me from enjoying the groups’ playing in the moment.

Relative to the third bullet point, I’m not an expert in linguistics, I just happened to be familiar with the word that was spoken. It was inappropriate for me to correct the pronunciation. 

By definition, a subject matter expert knows many aspects of her domain, which includes both positive and negative insights. But we must be careful about when and what we share with others. 

    • A nutritionist notices that though a dessert served at a dinner party may be tasty, it’s not healthy. But is it appropriate for her to voice her expertise?
    • A car aficionado knows that the car you just bought has a history of being problematic, but should he tell you?

The story is told of an English professor who was running late to teach a class. He was speeding down the highway, heading toward the college, when a policeman pulled him over.

Policeman: “Sir, you were driving fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit.”

Professor: “I’m so sorry. I’m late for a class I’m teaching at the college.”

Policeman: “Well, okay. This time I’ll just give you a warning. You can go. Drive safe.”

Professor: “Thanks…you mean drive safely…”

Policeman: “On second thought, stay right where you are.”

And he wrote him a speeding ticket.

Sometimes, our knowledge can work against us

16 Replies to “The curse of knowledge – part 4”

  1. Love it, Don.
    In my business, people don’t care how much I know until they know how much I care. When they get to the point where they know, like and trust me, they are likely to accept my recommendation without knowing all the details. Some want more than others but the important thing is letting the client decide how much they need to know.

    1. David, I like your phrase “let the client decide how much they need to know.” Sometimes, people don’t know what they need to know, but more times than not, we give them too much information, and it’s too scripted and formulaic. Take care, Don

  2. What a spot on and timely posting for the times in which we live – 2020. My favorite part was the policeman!!!!! Jolly good show man!!!!

  3. Fascinating. I agree (and have been guilty of all of the variations described above…hopefully less so in the future with raised awareness and the insights shared above).

    Another perspective: is all knowledge equally important? When should we share our knowledge with others? (versus the focus in the article, when should we not share our knowledge) When are the stakes so high that we are wrong to not share knowledge with others?

    I find it interesting that 95% of Christians have never shared the Good News or Gospel message with another person ever. Is there any knowledge more important than the Good News, the “Gospel” message, knowledge that could change someone for eternity? Why have so few Christians shared this critical, life changing knowledge with even one other person?

    God also shares His view on sharing knowledge with others in Leviticus 19. If we see someone doing something they shouldn’t be doing, we should, as lovingly as possible, let them know that they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing…we are not called to be silent bystanders of wrongdoing: “Rebuke your neighbor frankly, so you will not share in their guilt.”

    Most people in Colorado are good about wearing masks in public and as a result our Covid-19 case numbers have been very modest so far. Should I gently encourage that one person in the grocery store not wearing a mask to wear one? Better yet, should I carry an extra unused mask and offer it to him or her, encouraging them in a more loving and gentle way to do the right thing? (Leviticus 19: 16: ” Do not do anything that endangers your neighbors life.”) Who knows why they’re not wearing a mask…maybe they forgot but have to buy something that is urgently needed at home?

    It’s interesting to note that science has recently discovered that wearing a mask not only protects other people, but it is also helpful to the person wearing the mask: if exposed to the virus, the exposure is reduced which results in a more mild illness. Before modern vaccines, low dose exposure was the only “vaccine” available to certain lethal diseases. By wearing a mask, we are protecting others and possibly receiving a vaccination from the virus at the same time. 🙂

    1. Patrick, thanks for taking the time to write.
      You bring up a good point…when should we share knowledge/insight/opinion with others, even when it’s not solicited. (I once heard that unsolicited advice is usually received as criticism.) It’s yet another reminder for us to weigh our words carefully. Don

  4. As Bill Buckley often said,
    “Yes, of course I prefer my red wine to be drunk at room temperature, – – providing the room is 35 degrees F.”

  5. Wow, way to hit home. I can’t count the number of times I wish I could pull the words back into my mouth. The Lord was right when he said that it isn’t what goes into your mouth but what comes out – Proverbs 10 and Matthews 15. That is to also say if ask an opinion be wise and considerate. An old phrase is to “think before you speak” and “look before you leap”. Good words to the wise. If only I have always been wise.
    I have been a musician and teacher for a long time. We are always listening for the wrong notes and imbalance – it’s natural. But lately I’ve taken a step back and valued the overall so as not to miss any inate beauty.
    I am also a builder. It is so easy to see problems or bad workmanship. I always want to be helpful. But some DIYers are trying to be craftsmen. There is a tough one to be helocutions and encouraging. Just as long as the don’t do something that in the long run will be dangerous to themselves or anyone else.
    Don, thanks for the reminder.

    1. Ed, thanks for adding to the conversation. Your examples are telling. It takes a lot of self-control to keep our mouths closed. Don

  6. So true, and so easy to fall into that “well intentioned” trap.
    It can happen in a home Bible study or Sunday School Class. A member (or even the teacher) may have deep insight and knowledge of Scripture…and if they are not careful they can easily intimidate and discourage others from participating… sometimes by too much correcting, sometimes by too much amplification.

    1. Neil, you give a great example (Bible study) of when a knowledgeable, sincere person can shut down conversation. A facilitator should talk less than anyone in the group and not try to “one-up” anyone’s thoughts. Unfortunately, I’ve done just that too many times.

  7. Sometimes, whether teaching or among others in a group, we effectively shut down others’ input because we enthusiastically speak up before first allowing others (who may be more timid) a chance to comment. Enthusiasm can be a good thing, and sometimes it “primes the pump.” However, I often find that I just need to be more aware, more grace-giving toward those around me. It’s not just excitement about a topic, but pride that often takes the forefront. As for explaining the wine temperature, I think it takes time for us to learn to simply say “thank you” to a compliment. Thanks for all of this, Don! I’m going to look back at your other posts about “the curse of knowledge.” Being a teacher/writer/mother & grandmother, I need these exhortations!

    1. Sharon, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I like the way you think and write. You must be a good teacher/writer/mother & grandmother.

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