Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge

byJesseGalef7y18th Oct 201156 comments

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[crossposted at Measure of Doubt]

What is the Curse of Knowledge, and how does it apply to science education, persuasion, and communication? No, it's not a reference to the Garden of Eden story. I'm referring to a particular psychological phenomenon that can make our messages backfire if we're not careful.

Communication isn't a solo activity; it involves both you and the audience. Writing a diary entry is a great way to sort out thoughts, but if you want to be informative and persuasive to others, you need to figure out what they'll understand and be persuaded by. A common habit is to use ourselves as a mental model - assuming that everyone else will laugh at what we find funny, agree with what we find convincing, and interpret words the way we use them. The model works to an extent - especially with people similar to us - but other times our efforts fall flat. You can present the best argument you've ever heard, only to have it fall on dumb - sorry, deaf - ears.

That's not necessarily your fault - maybe they're just dense! Maybe the argument is brilliant! But if we want to communicate successfully, pointing fingers and assigning blame is irrelevant. What matters is getting our point across, and we can't do it if we're stuck in our head, unable to see things from our audience's perspective. We need to figure out what words will work.

Unfortunately, that's where the Curse of Knowledge comes in. In 1990, Elizabeth Newton did a fascinating psychology experiment: She paired participants into teams of two: one tapper and one listener. The tappers picked one of 25 well-known songs and would tap out the rhythm on a table. Their partner - the designated listener - was asked to guess the song. How do you think they did?

Not well. Of the 120 songs tapped out on the table, the listeners only guessed 3 of them correctly - a measly 2.5 percent. But get this: before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right. Their guess? Tappers thought their partners would get the song 50 percent of the time. You know, only overconfident by a factor of 20. What made the tappers so far off?

They lost perspective because they were "cursed" with the additional knowledge of the song title. Chip and Dan Heath use the story in their book Made to Stick to introduce the term:

 

"The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it's like to lack that knowledge. When they're tapping, they can't imagine what it's 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 or us to share our knowledge with others, because we can't readily re-create our listeners' state of mind."

 

So it goes with communicating complex information. Because we have all the background knowledge and understanding, we're overconfident that what we're saying is clear to everyone else. WE know what we mean! Why don't they get it? It's tough to remember that other people won't make the same inferences, have the same word-meaning connections, or share our associations.

It's particularly important in science education. The more time a person spends in a field, the more the field's obscure language becomes second nature. Without special attention, audiences might not understand the words being used - or worse yet, they might get the wrong impression.

Over at the American Geophysical Union blog, Callan Bentley gives a fantastic list of Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.

What great examples! Even though the scientific terms are technically correct in context, they're obviously the wrong ones to use when talking to the public about climate change. An inattentive scientist could know all the material but leave the audience walking away with the wrong message.

We need to spend the effort to phrase ideas in a way the audience will understand. Is that the same as "dumbing down" a message? After all, complicated ideas require complicated words and nuanced answers, right? Well, no. A real expert on a topic can give a simple distillation of material, identifying the core of the issue. Bentley did an outstanding job rephrasing technical, scientific terms in a way that conveys the intended message to the public.

That's not dumbing things down, it's showing a mastery of the concepts. And he was able to do it by overcoming the "curse of knowledge," seeing the issue from other people's perspective. Kudos to him - it's an essential part of science education, and something I really admire.

P.S. - By the way, I chose that image for a reason: I bet once you see the baby in the tree you won’t be able to ‘unsee’ it. (image via Richard Wiseman)