Do you want to improve your communication? Then understand the curse of knowledge

You might wonder “What? The curse of knowledge? Did I read it right?”. Yes, you have read it right and we are not talking about knowledge as a blessing, but knowledge as a curse. This is a popular concept and an extremely effective tool to improve any aspect of your communication – writing, presenting to others, talking and even writing a simple email. Let me explain.

Please recall a situation in your life in which you were interacting with an expert in a field that you didn’t know much about. Did you understand the expert’s language? How did the expert make you feel? Let me talk about a situation that I have recently encountered. Before reading this story, it would be better if you know that I am engineer running an IT consulting startup.

I was talking to an accountant about some transactions that I have to do in my accounting software to comply with the Swiss regulations for filing my company’s financial statements in Geneva. He told me that I have to debit this account, and credit that account and blah…blah… and it went straight over my head. I said “What? What? Can you please repeat that slowly?”. He repeated it not once but multiple times.

In trying to make sense of these words ‘debit’ and ‘credit’, I tried to visualize how these words were used by my bank: Credit means money coming into my account and debit means money going out of my account. When I used this logic, his explanation did not make sense. He asked me to ignore the bank’s logic and instead he told me “assets have debit balance and blah, blah, blah”. I was lost and I felt really stupid in wasting his time to make him repeat so many times what seems so basic to him. But what seems so basic to him continues to elude me and it even defied my logic of how my bank has used debit and credit. Hmmm. I decided that this accounting stuff is beyond me and i need to fully outsource this work so that I can just sign on the statements rather than trying to figure out how to enter an accounting transaction to make my books balance.

But the important thing is that it is NOT the accountant’s fault as well. In fact, we, IT guys, are notorious for this as we throw jargon after jargon to explain even a simple concept that our audience’ eyes glaze over and we can see it. But then, we think “How come these people can’t understand something so basic and so simple?”. So, in this instance of interacting with a person who lives and breathes accounting, I realized how many times I have sounded like Greek & Latin to people who do not live and breathe IT systems and databases like I do.

This is the curse of knowledge. When you know something, you do not know how it feels to be in the shoes of someone who does NOT know. In our earnest desire to make the other person understand, we repeat what we have said in different words yet it does not reach them. I first read about this concept in a wonderful book called Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath.

This phenomenon is best explained using the experiment done in Stanford University in 1990. In this experiment, subjects were divided into two groups: tappers and listeners. The tappers were asked to think of a song and try to rhythmically tap the song on a table, while the listeners’ job was to guess the song. In this experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 3 of the 120 songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But when the tappers were asked to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly, they predicted 50%. In other words: the tappers overestimated their success ratio of being understood 20 times above the reality. Such a difference. Why? When a tapper taps, it is impossible for him to avoid hearing the tune in his head. But for the listener, it is a series of unconnected sounds.

When we suffer from the curse of knowledge, we are like the tappers: because the tune of the song we are tapping is so obvious to us as we are hearing it constantly in our head as we are tapping, we assume that it is obvious for the listeners too. We wonder why the listeners can’t get it. We fail to understand that the listener does not have the tune in his mind.

So coming back to the situation I described, when the accountant was using the terms debit and credit, his neurons were firing visualizing what it means to debit and credit various accounts based on his long years’ of experience in accounting. But my neurons were firing in some other direction. And now putting the spotlight on me, when I explain a piece of technology or an IT tool that I work with, I see light bulbs everywhere in my head but my listeners are just lost in darkness. The primary purpose in writing this post is to remind me of the curse of knowledge so that I can improve my communication as I have a long way to go. How about you? Do you think that this concept will help you?

Just to conclude the story of debits and credit, last Saturday, I decided to take the debits and credits head on. After googling and reading a lot of articles on debit and credit (written with curse of knowledge), I chanced upon a few articles that put the lights on for me. Then, and only then, I realized how brilliant this double-entry book-keeping system is and how much I enjoyed this when I studied this for the first time in MBA classes at ISB almost 10 years back. Then, to test whether I can explain the concepts to another newbie, I explained this concept to my wife, after telling her that I really wanted to see whether I understood these concepts correctly. I think that my wife got it. An interesting consequence of this happened on Sunday morning when my 7-year old son came to me and told me that he was listening to all that I was telling his mom and wanted to understand what all this talk about credits and debits were about. And I ended up spending the first part of Sunday giving my son an education in finances. I and my son enjoyed the time and I think that he got the ideas. But my wife says that it was all too much for my son 🙂

Here are 2 other well-written articles on curse of knowledge: – A harvard-business-review article written by the authors of the book “Made to stick” explaining the concept of curse of knowledge. The book is extremely good and I definitely would recommend if you want to improve your communication. – Another nice article giving a different take on the same subject. I liked the Q&A at the end of the article – very thoughtful.

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