Monday, February 21

The 'Curse of Knowledge'

Chip and Dan Heath argue in 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.
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"? What are your thoughts? How do you personally go about overcoming the 'curse of knowledge'?


Anonymous said...


Dr. Luke says the followinng about Jesus: "...and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority." Luke 4:32 (ESV)

My experience shows me that just like Jesus the most gifted communicators are those whose style of teaching is congruent with the learning preferences of the listeners. And the most gift teachers are those who are anointed, that is full of the Holy Spirit. They have something of value to say to the people that God has put in their hearts and they share it heart to heart. If you share head to head you will completely miss it! God annointed ones would rarely get an "A" in a preaching/teaching class but they connect with their audience.


GuyMuse said...


Good thoughts. I have also noticed that when we do share 'heart-to-heart' people connect more than when we share 'head-to-head' least that is true amongst the people we work with. Heart trumps head.

Stephen M. Young II said...

This may be my favorite post of yours yet. I need time to think about it. Thanks.

GuyMuse said...


The entire post is basically a quote from the book "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" by Chip and Dan Heath. I too found these thoughts challenging.