The Curse of Knowledge

Many sensible strategies fail to drive action because executives formulate them in sweeping, general language.

The Curse of Knowledge

Visual from Communication Fundamentals with John Ullman.

In our last class period, we discussed the “Intent-Impact Gap,”  or the disconnect between what we want our audience to think, feel and do, and what they actually think feel and do.

We have experienced examples of this gap in our own communication, both professionally and personally.

Now, Chip and Dan Heath of the Harvard Business Review discuss the science behind the intent-impact gap.  A simple tapping exercise reveals a communication phenomenon, labeled the “Curse of Knowledge.” 

I would love to know your thoughts.  Please read and comment.

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25 thoughts on “The Curse of Knowledge

  1. The “Curse of Knowledge” is an important issue that occurs more than one might think. It is important that everyone is aware of this curse so that problems can be avoided. A real life example of when this happened to me was when I was learning how to drive. Once the light turned green, I immediately made a left turn and cut off a car that was going straight at the light. My mom proceeded to yell at me, telling me I did not follow the rules. The problem ended up being the curse of knowledge. My mom failed to tell me that you have to yield when you turn left on green, because that is a rule that is so natural to her. She later apologized when she realized that there was no way of me knowing that rule.

  2. The article, “The Curse of Knowledge” brought up interesting points about a topic I had not previously thought much about. After reading it, I thought about examples from my own life and realized how much of a problem this really is. Imagine your friend has been watching a television show from the beginning. If you were to join them half way through the series, then there would be a considerate amount of information that you would not have as to what is going on. It would be hard for your friend to communicate why what was happening was happening due to the fact that they cannot un-see what they have seen and relate to your current understanding of the topic.

  3. I have seen the “Curse of Knowledge” first hand at my internship this summer as a payment processor. My coworker would mistakenly describe problems in payment processing to clients using terms that only members of our company with knowledge of our database systems would understand. Since our clients were primary care physicians, this language would confuse them. This demonstrates the “Curse of Knowledge” because he was communicating as if the clients knew the same information that he did. Our manager noticed this mistake and told him to try to see it from the clients’ perspective. He was then able to fix this by changing his language into terms that the clients could understand.

  4. The thing that stuck out the most in this article was the tapper experiment. Playing well known songs I would have thought the success rate would have been much higher than 2.5%. Although it was a simple experiment it is definitely a great microcosm for the business world. As a business you want to come across as trustworthy as possible to potential customers without indirectly excluding any part of the customer base because they cant understand what it is your are selling. I thought the Trader Joes example was interesting as I remember the had a similar issue with this when first opening as they were viewed as an expensive organic grocery store.

  5. The tapper and listener example is one that I can relate to in everyday life. Statements get misinterpreted or not understood at all, so thats why it’s always good to strive for the highest level of clarity. One example is my summer job, I have been working under a contracting company every summer for about 4-5 years and most of my co-workers and other contractors on site are foreign (Russian, Mexican, Portuguese, Asian, etc). This makes it difficult to communicate effectively. Over the years this has taught me to communicate in a very basic and concise manner.
    Our boss is also very vague with what he needs done. This creates confusion and frustration as he has the curse of knowledge (knowing how to do everything that needs to be done).

  6. Elizabeth Newton’s study was a great example to explain how people, including me, has a hard time of explaining something to somebody and finds it frustrating when the person thats trying to understand what you’re talking about don’t understand. My first question is, how can one use concrete language to explain something when you already feel like what you’re saying is already in a “concrete language”? Also, do you think the reason why its hard for somebody to use concrete language to explain what they’re trying to say because their knowledge on a topic is limited to the point they understand topic enough “to get by”?

  7. I really enjoyed reading this article. It gave a term to something that all of us experience. Major companies use the “Curse of Knowledge” on a very large scale, but we also do it, possibly without even realizing. Once we know something, it is very hard to explain it to people who do not know it. One example that I can think of is THON. Since this is my third year participating in the organization, I know a lot about it. Whenever I have to explain things to people such as my mom or new members in my organization, it is very difficult because in my head, I assume they know all of the information that I do. However, they do not, and most of the time, I do not realize that. This lower scale example is exactly what major companies do to all of us. They assume that we know everything that they do when we are not even close. I constantly find myself reading articles online and not understanding any of it. I usually then search for articles that have “For Dummies” in the title to be sure that I understand everything that I need to. Before reading this article, I never thought about the “Curse of Knowledge.” It made me really think about it and how we all experience it on a daily basis, sometimes without even knowing it.

  8. I found the article interesting and relatable. Both of my parents are business executives. Growing up, my brother and I would joke because we would always ask them to explain their jobs to us, and they would give us such vague terms and descriptions of their every day tasks that we would never really understand what they do. Even now, since I haven’t begun my professional career, I still feel that I don’t have a full understanding of what their specific jobs are. They never meant to be vague, and they really did try to give us the best description of their jobs that they could, but they have been “cursed” by their knowledge. Because they have been using the terms that they are saying for years since beginning their careers, they assume anyone will understand what they are saying. I also found the tapping example very interesting. The whole article opened my awareness that different people’s experiences lead them to be more well versed on certain topics, and it is ignorant to assume that everyone else is as knowledgeable in every topic as you are.

  9. This article sheds a new light on the gap that is created from a difference in two parties respective knowledge. Two summers ago, I worked in a Michael Kors Retail store as a stock associate, and all of the bags had different codes that represented a specific style. The store I worked in had a significant amount of foot traffic, so everything had to be very fast paced to keep up with customer demand. During my first week, managers would come in the back and yell these codes at me for certain bags, but I had no idea which codes corresponded to which bag. In order to combat this, they had me download an app with all of the codes and pictures of the bags that matched with them. Because of this app, the “Curse of Knowledge” was eliminated as the managers ad I were both on the same page, and it allowed me to keep up with the fast-paced flow on the floor of the store.

  10. This article is very helpful. From the “Tapper and Listener” experiment, the tappers are pretty sure the listeners would know what they were tapping because they pretended the listeners knew the song already. The gap does exist and I have experiencing it when I was discussing a class topic with my teammate in agribusiness class. I talked a lot of issues regarding the Chinese agricultural policy and my perspective about them. However, my teammate looked confused and have no idea about them. I tended to pretend they knew the policy at first which confounded them. The problem is I ignored the culture gap and “curse of knowledge” discussed in the article.

  11. The curse of knowledge is an article about communicating your message to the reader. Obviously if you are writing about a topic you should have done research or have extensive knowledge on the subject. It is important to understand that the reader does not have the level of understanding that you do. It is critical that authors use concrete descriptive language when explaining their concepts. I agree with the article and believe that an author should write like they are speaking to someone who has no prior knowledge about the material.
    I also liked the suggestions the author used for avoiding the curse of knowledge. I think that using stories to get your point across can be extremely helpful. Applying the concepts you are writing about to the real world will certainly help readers relate to the writing and understand the message.

  12. I found this article very interesting and relatable. It almost felt like an “ah-ha” moment for me because I could not count how many instances where my or others’ lack of communication of concrete language made sharing ideas so much more difficult. I particularly enjoyed the analogy of the song tapping where the tapper knows exactly what song they are tapping to and are completely awestruck when the listener has no idea what they are say. Sometimes when i try to explain something, I’ve noticed that my complete understanding of the subject impedes my ability to share it because i assume the other party has a similar understanding of the topic as I do. It often ends on me saying “how do you not understand” because it makes perfect sense to me, but probably sounded very complex and unorganized to the listener. Lack of communication like this is everywhere and I feel that it is very important to attempt to know your audience. One has to be aware of how much knowledge the audience may have about the subject before presenting the information so the speaker knows how much information to include and how clear they must be. Knowledge is definitely a curse and I feel it is very important to try to put myself in others’ shoes in order to maximize my communication capacities.

  13. This article, which highlights the Intent-Impact gap that we discussed in class reminded me of a job that I had in high school. During my high school years I worked at a Christmas tree farm trimming Christmas trees. My boss, Bill was a very intelligent business man who expected his trees to look perfect. The problem with this was that he had a hard time describing how he wanted the trees to look, and would often come off as rude, and angry. He expected me to be able to read his mind, and unfortunately for both of us I could not. If Bill would have spent time to communicate better how he would like the job done. he would have alleviated lots of headache. Its very similar to the people tapping out a song, but to the other person it just sounds like random tapping. My boss knew exactly what he wanted the trees to look like, but his explanation of the process wasn’t clear or concise enough to carry out successfully. This article reminds you that just because something seems so clear to one person, doesn’t mean it will be to another, because you never know what prior knowledge other people have about a topic.

  14. In this article, the curse of knowledge is used in a business context, although I believe this curse is relevant in other areas such as education. School teachers and professors may be experts on a certain topic, but it may not always be easy for them present the information in a way that makes the most sense to a student who has virtually no knowledge of the topic. This is why peer mentoring and tutoring programs can be so effective, since they better understand the mindset of these students since it was not long ago that they had no knowledge on the topic themselves.

  15. This story resonated with me because the Curse Of Knowledge is something that I experience every day. For example, I’m on a THON Committee, and my roommates are not. Sometimes, I’ll come home from a meeting, full of information about pass lists, info booths, and proper dancer protocols. To someone who is not involved in THOn, these words don’t hold much meaning. but for me, these are things that I deal with each day while preparing for THON. I think the curse of knowledge is very real, and I can see how it might hinder communication between employees and upper level management in a company. In my experience, it helps t use stories and examples to explain myself better. I liked the use of the Trader Joe’s sample, because this is a company that knows how to communicate with its public. This store uses colorful language and imagery in order to draw customers in.

  16. What I found interesting about this article was towards the end, when Trader Joe’s described their target audience as an “unemployed professor who drives a very used Volvo”. I instantly pictured who they were talking about and understood their message. Same with the FedEx Driver who’s job it is to deliver packages by any means necessary, not just driving her route and leaving at 5pm. The gap between intent and impact grows wider the more knowledgeable a person is on a subject. Its very difficult for an expert to explain the basics of something to someone, because the basics are so second nature to the expert that its almost like trying to teach another human being on how to breathe.

  17. I feel that this article provides insight to the way in which many different aspects of life operate on a regular basis. I like the article provided real world examples like Trader Joe’s and FedEx to help the reader further understand the article. The Curse of Knowledge provides an interesting perspective on an idea that many people would not consider. When looking at top level executives and the way in which they communicate, there are several flaws. There is a great level of disconnect between a top level employee and an employee towards the bottom of the totem pole. I have had personal experiences in several different jobs that relate directly to this problem. Another issue that is discussed briefly in this article is communication. Top level executives and average employees likely do not communicate directly and for this reason there is a lack of communication within many organizations.

  18. This article was very successful not only in summarizing the “curse of knowledge” phenomenon, but also offering multiple ways to avoid the pitfall. The study of “tappers” and listeners perfectly described the scenario. Understanding that not everybody has the same internal monologue is the first step to avoiding the curse. I think the solution of using concrete language is the most stable way to avoid losing your audience. In almost any field, complex ideas are communicated with complex jargon, understood by those who are experienced in that work. Without this jargon, expressing new concepts would be tiresome and hard to follow. But for the common man, basic language creates the building blocks of new ideas. Most people will be able to logically follow an idea that is presented to them, but you must first present that idea in terms that they understand, and allow them to build the concept on their own. By simplifying our language when communicating, we can help ensure understanding and keep all parties involved on the same page.

  19. This article brings up some very interesting points. You always think that someone is going to understand what you are saying, or “tapping,” but in reality, you are cursed by the knowledge of knowing what you are trying to say, or “tap.” We always assume people know what we are trying to say and get very frustrated when people do not understand us, or our “tune.” This “curse of knowledge” can definitely blindside the writer from getting their point across clearly to the audience. I have experienced this frustration when trying to explain something that seems so simple to me to someone who does not understand. Sometimes I say to myself “How do they not get it? It’s so easy.” However, the “curse of knowledge” in this situation could cause me to easily forget that at one point, this given concept was new and confusing to me, as well.

  20. This article is very interesting, because it assigns a term to something that we have all experienced before. In any situation, our statements will only hold value if we can provide concrete examples; this is especially truthful in a business environment when people are trying to juggle many tasks.
    This summer, I interned at a large logistics company, and learned so many cliches like, “Creating Value,” and “Becoming a trusted advisor to our customers.” By the end of the internship, I was using this language as well. When our President came in to speak to all of the interns, he spoke with sweeping advice like, “It’s good to take risks,” or “You have to know the core of the business.” Though his advice was insightful, he would never think to provide minute details behind is advice.
    I also think this concept can be related to the transition into a new workplace. Many can agree that one difficulty in entering a new company is the seemingly endless amount of abbreviations or acronyms. Of course, seasoned employees don’t think twice about using them, much less explaining them to new employees.
    This concept hilights that by being conscious of our audience, and gearing your communication towards them, we will send a clearer message

  21. I think this article was very helpful. I was very interested when this topic was first brought up to class. I think it is a very different perspective on the way we look at knowledge since I never thought that knowledge could potentially be something negative. After I read the article, I realized that what was written was very pertinent since it had happened to me a few times. The last time was during China where the culture was completely different and they did not know about the topic I was talking about. I was speaking as if they should obviously know what I was speaking about but when I finished I realized they were completely perplexed and I had to start again and explain myself.

  22. This article was very insightful and really pleasant to read. It was very relatable to me as during this past summer, I interned with a consulting company and had to deliver several client presentations which showed some of the “Curse of Knowledge” points. During the beginning of the internship, I had trouble communicating my recommendations to clients in an effective way as they had trouble seeing my perspective and I had trouble understanding their inability to comprehend what I was saying. After speaking to some of the senior managers of the company, I learned that what I was not doing was telling good stories and presenting my recommendations in a way that they could understand with their perspective. After trying to look from their perspective and using stories and real life examples, I was able to effectively present my findings to clients, leading to a successful internship and really highlighting the main idea of this article.

  23. I agree with what one of the students posted already–storytelling is one highly effective and very clear way to communicate a purpose. My marketing professor last semester always used stories and real-life examples to explain marketing concepts. I was able to grasp the concept much easier when I could think of a story/example that was taught with the concept. I think telling stories and giving very specific examples is a great way to avoid the “Curse of Knowledge” and communicate your exact intent.

  24. The most interesting part of the story was the fact that it highlighted how effective stories are in allowing the listener to understand. In classes, it seems that the best teachers are the ones who can use real life examples in order to help students learn how the topic would be applied in the real world. Coincidentally, this very story is using this tactic (stories) in order to help students understand the intent-impact gap.

  25. This article gave me insight to a problem I had this past summer interning with a paper company. The company believed in “Creating Value.” What that value was exactly was unknown to my fellow interns and I. The interns struggled with abbreviations that our managers would use constantly. As a tool to combat this, our managers issued the interns with a piece of paper that explained the abbreviations. A simple piece of paper narrowed the gap of the “Curse of Knowledge.” Throughout the course of the internship we saw how to create value by a number of sales workshops. The “Curse of Knowledge” was there during my internship, I just did not know what to call it until now.

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