The Curse of Knowledge – We Are All Guilty!

I first came across the phrase, “The Curse of Knowledge” in a book titled Made To Stick co-authored by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  The book explains why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck. The authors “take the lid off one of the great mysteries of life: why it is that we have no difficulty at all in remembering the details of, say, a bogus scary story, and yet often struggle to recall information that may be vital to us.”

Simply put, one is suffering from the curse of knowledge if his message is not achieving the desired result, and he keeps wondering why the recipients cannot understand what he’s trying to tell them. For instance, if you blow a big grammar thinking that the other person should know what you mean just because the grammar appears so simple to you, then you are suffering from the curse of knowledge. I can, for instance, say something like, “Hey, man, this is sheer floccinaucinihilipilification.” Of course, you could nod your head just to show that you too understand big English; yet you have no clue to the meaning of that word. I could then walk away thinking that we are of the same mind, simply because I understand what I have said. But chances are that you, my listener/reader, does not; in which case I am guilty of the curse of knowledge!

By the way, I did not cook up that word. It is, indeed, one of the longest, jaw-breaking words in English language and you can check out its meaning here.

Our leaders often speak in a language that an ordinary man on the street does not understand. When the man then begins to go on riot, they start wondering why? They begin to ask, “Didn’t we explain to him? Can’t he see the points we’ve made on this issue? Can’t he see that our decisions are in his own interest, and the interest of his children’s children? Why can’t he get it?” Well, the point is clear, but clear only to the leaders themselves; not the common man. The leaders are suffering from the curse of knowledge!

Because the leaders understand what they are trying to communicate, they cannot see why the ordinary man on the road cannot also do. A classical case is the recent hullabaloo on fuel subsidy removal in Nigeria. It became clear that many of our government officials were guilty of the curse of knowledge. In view of their vantage position, they could probably understand the figures, assumptions, and dynamics surrounding the fuel subsidy issue. But they passed the message across to ordinary Nigerians in such a way that many could not understand. They were then surprised about the reactions they got, wondering why Nigerians could not understand simple fuel subsidy English.

But, honestly, everyone is guilty of the curse of knowledge.

Look at the way we pass information to our children at home. You explain certain things to a youngster believing that she has understood you perfectly. ‘She should,’ you think. Why wouldn’t she? Is she not a graduate? Didn’t she go to school? To the shock of your life, the young lady still goes ahead to repeat exactly what you asked her never to do again! As a big mummy, you become so upset and begin to rain every abuse on earth on the poor lady! Please, you are guilty. You are suffering from the curse of knowledge. That lady couldn’t see your point, and she can’t still see it! Why? Because you have continued to speak from your own perspective; you are not communicating in a “sticky” manner – guilty as charged!

Many students fail their school assignments and examinations not so much because they are not brilliant, but because the messages from their teachers are not sticky enough. Their teachers communicate in teacher’s language, as against student’s language. Successful teachers actually teach in the student’s language.

How about couples – husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, friend and friend? Many relationships go sour on account of curse of knowledge. A wife cannot understand why the husband can’t see her point of view. She fails to realize that the message is not sinking. She thinks that the husband should know, simply because she knows what she’s trying to say. But it doesn’t work that way. The fact that a partner is dead sure of what he/she is saying doesn’t mean that both are on the same page.

The same thing happens in an office environment. Top officers come up with big English to communicate simple vision and instructions to their staff. You hear things like, “Our strategic objective for this year is to achieve a market share of 50% and ensure that we deliver shareholders value through an efficient marketing strategy and a strong focus on customer satisfaction.” What exactly does that mean to an employee? Of course, Management knows the meaning. But do the foot soldiers understand it? When the end of a quarter/year comes and the result is below expectation, Management begins to ask unnecessary questions. They fail to understand that the fault actually came from them because they had not communicated well. Their message did not stick. They are guilty of the curse of knowledge.

If you’ve been wondering why many church-goers still continue to commit various atrocities despite all their pastor’s counsel and sermons, it should be easy for you to understand now. The pastor preaches every day, “It is wrong to embezzle. Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not kill…” Yet, the same people who listen to him continue to do all those things. They can’t understand why it is wrong to embezzle. They don’t know what stealing involves. The pastor thinks they should. ‘Can’t everyone see that committing fraud with the pen is unholy?’ he thinks. Sorry, pastor, you are guilty of the curse of knowledge. The congregation is not at the same level with you. You think they know, but they don’t. The message is not sticky; you only assume it does!

How about all those nasty customer service officers that attend to our complaints. It doesn’t matter whether she works with a bank, MTN, Glo, or Air Nigeria. She could as well be your own staff. They speak to customers in their employers’ language; not the customers’ “dialect.” When a customer then becomes hot with them, they begin to wonder why he’s so “troublesome” and cannot understand simple English. No doubt, a great number of customer service officers are suffering from the curse of knowledge. They know what the customer does not know. But they find it hard to explain; because they can’t understand why that customer doesn’t know.

As someone once remarked, when you know a subject so much, you find it so easy that it becomes difficult for you to write a simple Manual on it. How many times have you heard doctors or IT officers speak about their work? What do you get at the end of it all? Nothing! Their talks are usually packed with jargons and strange phrases that only their colleagues can understand.

I must also confess that my insurance professional colleagues are not left out. As an insurance man, I know what “insurable interest” means. I can also define “sum assured” while sleeping. But how would a noninsurance person view me if, in an attempt to sell my products, I keep repeating those technical terms? If I’m suffering from the curse of knowledge, I might wonder why the customer cannot understand such simple insurance terms; forgetting that he is not an insurance man like me!

With the few examples given above, it becomes easy to see why we can all be suffering from the curse of knowledge. What, then, is the remedy? Quite simple! We must all learn how to communicate in simple language.

  • Managers must be able to communicate their company strategies in concrete and simple language that all staff can understand.
  • Couples must patiently speak in a clear language, with the aim of communicating, as against hearing one’s own voice.
  • Government officials must speak in a language that will leave no one in doubt of their intentions.
  • Pastors must talk to the congregations as if they, the people, have never opened the bible for once in their lifetime.
  • And parents must address their children in the language that would penetrate their hearts and feelings.

In all cases, simplicity must be the key.

If you are still in doubt about what the curse of knowledge can cause, I implore you to read the case study below. This same study is cited in Made To Stick, but I have actually copied it from Harvard Business Review and sincerely hope you’ll enjoy it:

  • In 1990, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by studying a simple game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” Each tapper was asked to pick a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song.
  • Over the course of Newton’s experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only three of the songs correctly: a success ratio of 2.5%. But before they guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict the probability that listeners would guess correctly. They predicted 50%. The tappers got their message across one time in 40, but they thought they would get it across one time in two. Why?
  • When a tapper taps, it is impossible for her to avoid hearing the tune playing along to her taps. Meanwhile, all the listener can hear is a kind of bizarre Morse code. Yet the tappers were flabbergasted by how hard the listeners had to work to pick up the tune.
  • The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.
  • In the business world, managers and employees, marketers and customers, corporate headquarters and the front line, all rely on ongoing communication but suffer from enormous information imbalances, just like the tappers and listeners.

So, that’s the point. Effective communication makes life better for everyone. But let me leave you with this simple experiment which is not exactly about the curse of knowledge, but has a close resemblance to it. And it can be really fun to carry out.

I want you to whisper something to somebody sitting or standing next to you.  Ask him to write the message down and whisper the same thing to the next person. Let that person also pass it across to another person in form of a whisper. It would be nice if about six or more people could participate.

At the end of the exercise, ask each of the people to say what they have heard whispered to their ears. The result will shock you. I can almost bet that each person would have his or her own version of the original message – perfectly distorted along the way!

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