Thursday, February 22

The 'Curse of Knowledge'

OnMovements, a blog I often read, recently caught my attention with the following thought, which is highly relevant to anyone working in the harvest fields of the Lord...
The Curse of Knowledge is the tendency for leaders to think that having a great idea is enough. Leaders cursed by knowledge think that the communication part of that idea will come naturally. They don’t see the difficultly of getting a thought out of their own heads and into the heads of others.

As Chip and Dan Heath argue in their book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and 0thers Die, that the great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge is this:

The better we get at generating great ideas—new insights and novel solutions—in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly.

Successful leaders of movements overcome this natural tendency to encode vision, values, and strategy in language that is sweeping, high-level, and abstract. They consciously think about the “communication part” — choosing language that works in the streets and is at a level that everyone can reach. A movement leader’s language is storied and concrete.

The “Curse of Knowledge” is best illustrated by a psychology experiment conducted in 1990 by a Ph.D. candidate named Elizabeth Newton. She designed a simple game in which she assigned her subjects to one of two roles: “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs, such as “Happy Birthday to You” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Each tapper was asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener (by knocking on a table). The listener’s job was to guess the song based on the rhythm being tapped.

The listener’s job in this game is quite difficult. During the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 3 songs correctly out of 120, a success ratio of 2.5%.

But here’s what made the result worthy of a dissertation in psychology.

Before the listeners guessed the name of the song, the tappers were asked to make a prediction: What’s the probability that the listeners will guess the right song? The tappers predicted that the probability was 50%. The tappers communicated successfully 1 time in 40, but they thought they were communicating successfully 1 time in 2.


When a tapper taps, she is hearing the song in her head. It is impossible for the tappers to avoid hearing the tune playing along to their taps. Meanwhile, the listeners can’t hear that tune—all they can hear are a bunch of disconnected taps. In the experiment, tappers are flabbergasted at how hard the listeners seem to be working to pick up the tune. Isn’t the song obvious? The tappers’ expressions, when a listener guesses “Happy Birthday to You” for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” are priceless. How could you be so stupid?

It’s hard to be a tapper. The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it is like to lack that knowledge. When they are tapping, they can’t imagine what it is like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song.

This is the Curse of Knowledge.

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create the state of mind of our listeners.
The question then becomes, how do we avoid the curse of knowledge? How do we move beyond knowledge and communicate with those around us the ideas so that they too "get it"? OnMovements seems to want to tackle this issue in upcoming posts (which I plant to read), but in the meantime, what are your thoughts? How do you personally go about overcoming the 'curse of knowledge'?


drouillards said...

First off - hello. I found you googling "missionary blogs". I resonate with much of what you write and appreciate your honesty. I love this quote. I guess the answer to your question is "remember". Communion, the Eucharist, "remember Me." We must inwardly remember before we seek to outwardly connect. The questions of the quote really grabs me. It's such a great easy visual to share with people, too.

Darrell said...

Guy I believe this is the kind of thing we have missed over the years, but is SO important to the Kingdom. What good is a sermon if only a single digit percentage of the listeners got it and put it into practice? It is well researched that most people only remember 10% of what they hear, but 90% of what they teach! I am convinced that one of the reasons CPM work is that it multiplies teachers as opposed to listeners.

The last two training workshops I attended were both put on by CPM thinking folks. There approach to teaching is so unique in the world of teaching. In both cases they spent most of the time instructing the students to open their Bibles and study a passage for 20 minutes and then report to the class what they learned. The “teacher” just kept things moving. This approach to passing on ideas worked very well. Especially when you consider that in both cases the majority of the students were pastors or missionaries who did not embrace the CPM when they came, but had a radical change of thinking by the end.

So I think one of the best ways to teach is let the scriptures speak, and they ask the student to explain what they learned. Jesus modeled so well the kind of teaching that works. Lost of questions, stories with questions, assignments, and every once in a while a “sermon”.

Jim Petersen put it this way, “Telling is not Teaching”, and “Use questions as your primary teaching tool”

Paul Burleson said...


I have never heard or thought of the idea demonstrated in "tappers and listeners" but what a clear picture it presents. Maybe I'm immature in my thinking [they say children think in concrete terms and picures help] but that pictures for me what I've known to be a problem for a long time but didn't know how to even make clear what I was struggling with conceptually. This I'm going to use often. [I may not give you credit for showing me the research so people will think I'm really sharp. :)]

I'm continually praying for you guys.

GuyMuse said...


Thanks for stopping by and for leaving the comment. Indeed "remember Me" is key to everything we do in ministry. Glad the quote was helpful.


"Telling is not teaching" is just what the OnMovements quote is trying to say. In our training as well, we try to model, rather than teach. So much more is gained when the learners DO what we are trying to say, rather than just sit and LISTEN to what we have to say.


I noticed OnMovements now has a couple of more postings on the same subject which I would point you to. I agree the "tappers and listeners" is a good illustration of the problems we have in communicating our ideas to others. As always, thanks for your continued prayers.

Tim Patterson said...


This is excellent! Thanks for discovering this research and sharing it. It illustrates the challenge so well!

As I plan for teaching/training times... I will ask myself... how many of the communication senses for my audience am I going to stimulate? ...Am I using visuals? Am I using more than one audio source (besides my voice)? Am I using tactile activities? Am I using meaningful symbols/stories for their culture? Am I allowing ample opportunities for them to express their thoughts/ interpretations? Am I permitting enough group interaction? Am I truly listening and seeking to clarify what I observe?

I will be studying this link... thanks Guy!

GuyMuse said...


Excellent questions to be asking ourselves in teaching/training times. As I have stated elsewhere, most of what we end up doing/modeling usually is the way it is passed on to the next generation. One of the most humbling experiences I have as a missionary is hearing people I have taught/trained passing on to others the same ideas, illustrations, etc. Sometimes I cringe because it is not something I really should have made a big deal out of, and yet because I did at the time, is now being taught to others with equal force. Ouch!

One other thought on this whole subject and addressed to you and the other commentators is that I have often felt that in our own preparation much should be stressed about the whole communication theory area. Too little emphasis is given to communication theory and yet it is crucial to all we do.