The curse of knowledge: How to tell if you’re under the spell

5th June 2023

Have you ever presented something to a group of people, upon where you finish your carefully rehearsed, insightful patter, open up the floor for questions and then notice, with a bit of a sinking feeling, a sea of slightly blank faces?

We’ve all been there. From pitches and presentations to your awkward festive game of charades, what feels completely obvious to you is received with a few blinks and the polite-awkward shuffle of non-comprehension.

What you’re experiencing is a common phenomenon that individuals and businesses often face when they communicate internally or externally; the ‘curse of knowledge’.

The research
The phrase was coined in a 1989 paper by Camerer, Loewenstein and Weber. It describes the cognitive bias that leads those who know ‘something’ not being able to put themselves in the mindset of those who don’t.

This was tested and highlighted in the 1990 doctoral thesis by Stanford graduate Elizabeth Newton. One group of participants was asked to tap the tune of well-known songs to another group that was asked to listen. Newton’s write up makes a fascinating read, but in a nutshell, the ‘tappers’ were asked to guess how many of the tunes would be correctly guessed. 50% was their estimate.

In fact, only 3 of the 120 songs were correctly identified; a success rate of 2.5%.

Such a low rate of comprehension was down to the fact that to those listening, all they heard was a seemingly random series of taps, delivered without any kind of context.

This study illustrates how we, as humans, dramatically overestimate our ability to communicate to others. In this case, those doing the tapping can’t un-know the song in their head, hence being ‘cursed’ by the knowledge and overestimating the ease of sharing it.

The curse at work
This difference in understanding inevitably leads to miscommunication, which is something that we come across often at Luna 9. Whether it’s with individual innovators, scaling companies or trailblazing organisations, it’s something we’re all susceptible to, and it can be so damaging.

Our first step is to immerse ourselves in the thing you’re trying to explain. Some research, plenty of questions and a healthy dose of external perspective gets our team up to speed.

But for your audience, that’s not good enough – no one has a few hours spare to dedicate to imparting or absorbing knowledge. This is the curse at work. But don’t worry. This is where Luna 9 comes in.

How we beat the curse
It’s all about taking it back to basics. At Luna 9, our first step is to help you consider how your audience will interpret what you’re saying, looking at what you’re sharing from the outside in.

Without this perspective, you run a pretty high risk of losing engagement and creating a disconnect between your audience and your content.

We know from plenty of experience that half the battle is understanding the theory behind how we communicate and digest information, and using that as the springboard that can inform how best to share your messaging.

Avoiding this trap is all about getting in the right frame of mind from the outset, and that’s why we start almost every project with a curse-of-knowledge-beating Strategy Sprint.

It’s amazing how just being aware of this phenomenon makes you much better equipped to avoid it. The irony that it takes this knowledge to deal with the curse of knowledge is not lost on us, but small changes to the way you articulate your message can make a huge difference to whether your listeners really understand what it is that you’re tapping.

If you think you could be falling foul of the curse of knowledge, we’d love to help. Drop us a line at [email protected].



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