Background

It is the first day of your introduction to biology class and the teacher is speaking about microbes and their role in human everyday life. Although this is an introductory course, the teacher is using words that you have not been introduced to before, so you do not fully understand the material being covered. However, she seems confident that you and your classmates have the knowledge necessary to comprehend what she is lecturing about.

Here’s Why

When teachers have not been students themselves for some time, they often might have difficulty placing themselves in their students’ shoes. For this reason, they may assume a student knows more than what they actually know and consequently teach at a level that may be too advanced for novices. The teacher will not recognize this mismatch due to the personal familiarity she/he has with the material.

Curse of Knowledge

Curse of knowledge occurs when an individual unknowingly assumes that the other individuals she/he is communicating with possess the background knowledge to understand what is being discussed.

The Experiment

Economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber coined the term “curse of knowledge” in a 1989 article in the Journal of Political Economy. In 1990, the term was popularized by an experiment designed by Stanford graduate student Elizabeth Newton. In this study, a group of subjects were asked to “tap” out well-known songs with their fingers, while another group tried to name the melodies. When the “tappers” were asked to predict how many of the “tapped” songs would be recognized by listeners, they persistently overestimated. The curse of knowledge is demonstrated here, as the “tappers” are so familiar with what they were tapping that they assumed listeners would easily recognize the tune.

Why Care?

The curse of knowledge is a concept that is important to keep in mind when attempting to educate others in any given topic. In order to communicate your message effectively, it is vital to remember that there are facts that you know that others might not know, and vice versa. If you want to truly persuade or affect someone, they need to be able to understand your message. Thus, allowing them the opportunity to tell you what they know is key. Once you have an idea of how much they know, you can begin making your claim. However, it is important to consistently check in with them and ask if they need anything to be further clarified.

 

    Learn More

    1. Wieman, Carl (2007). “The ‘Curse of Knowledge’, or Why Intuition About Teaching Often Fails” (PDF). APS News. 16(10). Archived from the original on 2016-04-10
    2. Fischhoff, Baruch (1975). “Hindsight is not equal to foresight: The effect of outcome knowledge on judgment under uncertainty”. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance. 1 (3): 288–299.
    3. Heath, Chip; Heath, Dan (Dec 2006). “The Curse of Knowledge”. Harvard Business Review.

    Think Further

    1. Can you think of a time in which you asked someone to explain something but they explained it using terms you did not understand?
    2. Did that person seem at all confused that you did not comprehend what they were communicating to you?
    3. Can you think of a time in which someone asked you to explain something that you are good at but after you explained it the other individual seemed extremely confused? Did you continue attempting to explain?