The Curse of Knowledge: Blinded by Expertise

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Made to Stick" by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the curse of knowledge? How does it get in the way of effective communication?

Sometimes we’re blinded by the curse-of-knowledge bias, assuming that others know what we know. As a result, we fail to communicate effectively and compellingly. When we learn to get around this cognitive bias, we can craft messages that are clear and convincing.

Read more to learn how the curse of knowledge hampers communication.

The Curse of Knowledge Gets in the Way

Anyone can apply these six principles to craft a sticky message—they’re mostly common sense—yet a majority of people produce opaque, mind-numbing prose instead. The reason people don’t take simple steps to make their message compelling is that they’re blinded by a cognitive bias known as “the curse of knowledge.” Instead of keeping their message simple and concrete, they lapse into abstractions because they wrongly assume their listeners have the same level of knowledge or expertise as they do.

In 1990, Stanford Ph.D. student Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge with a study in which she asked subjects to choose a simple tune, such as “Jingle Bells,” from a list and tap out the rhythm on a table. She assigned other people to try to figure out the tune being tapped.

Tappers were shocked to learn that listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time. Because they were hearing the song in their heads as they tapped (knowledge the listener didn’t possess), they thought their tapping was making the song perfectly clear. Because they had the curse-of-knowledge bias, they couldn’t imagine the perspective of the listener who wasn’t “hearing” the same song. Once you know something, it’s hard to remember that others don’t. Teachers obviously have to overcome this mismatch in knowledge between speaker and listener, but everyone with a message faces it to some degree. For instance, a CEO must translate her company’s strategy of maximizing shareholder value into clear terms for employees. The way to do it is to transform your message by using the six principles as a checklist.

For example, President John F. Kennedy sidestepped the curse-of-knowledge bias in 1961 when he presented an unexpected goal in simple, concrete, credible terms: He wanted to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade. He could have said, “our mission is to become the international leader … through maximum innovation…”. But he made his idea sticky, and its impact was historic.

The Curse of Knowledge: Blinded by Expertise

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Here's what you'll find in our full Made to Stick summary:

  • What makes some messages “stick” while others go unremembered
  • The six criteria for shaping your message so it resonates
  • Why many companies are blinded by “the curse of knowledge”

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She has always appreciated nonfiction, especially about history, politics, and ideas. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. As a former intelligence analyst and a teacher of critical thinking skills, Elizabeth enjoys analyzing arguments on all sides of an issue. Her nonfiction preferences include theology, science, and philosophy. She studies the intersection of these three in pursuit of the highest truths. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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