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.
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 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"? What are your thoughts? How do you personally go about overcoming the 'curse of knowledge'?
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.