Most will agree that the best way to learn a new skill, or even a new approach to work, is by learning from those who are already experts in the field.
However, when someone is presented with an opportunity to share their expertise they may not be able to convey it effectively due to a phenomenon called “the curse of knowledge”.
In this article, we'll look at what the curse of knowledge is, and how it affects knowledge sharing in an organization.
What Is the Curse of Knowledge?
The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that happens when someone assumes the people they're talking to already have the necessary knowledge and understanding to follow along.
Simply put, the curse of knowledge is the idea that when we know something, it is extremely difficult to think about it from the perspective of someone who does not know it.
Which in turn makes it harder to explain our knowledge, thoughts, and ideas in a way that makes sense to someone who doesn’t already understand it.
Some call it the "curse of expertise" and it can interfere with knowledge sharing, because someone who has internalized information to a certain extent, can have difficulties explaining it in a way that is engaging and understandable to people who do not possess the same level of expertise.
The discrepancy between expectation and reality
In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, conducted a simple experiment that demonstrated the curse of knowledge.
In her experiment, a group of people was asked to tap out popular songs (such as the Happy Birthday song) and have others guess what song it was.
But before the actual experiment started, the tappers were asked to guess how many of the other participants would be able to guess the song just by listening to them tap it out.
Most tappers predicted that 50% of listeners would guess the song correctly, but in reality, only 2.5% did.
This vast discrepancy between expectation and reality showcases the power of the curse of knowledge—the tappers were so close to the song that it was hard for them to imagine how others couldn't know what they knew.
It's not about the difficulty of the information
Similarly, when asked trivia questions such as “Where is the Trevi Fountain?” (hint: Rome, Italy) those that know often overestimate how many other people are aware of the answer.
This is because of fluency misattribution; our own ease in recalling the correct answer makes us mistakenly think others will have the same level of familiarity.
In other words, it’s not the objective difficulty of the answer that leads us to have this bias, but the fluency (or ease) with which we recall it.
We mistake our own ease as a sign of how common or easy-to-foresee the information is when really, it’s just our prior exposure to the information that makes it easy to recall.
How Does The Curse Of Knowledge Impact Knowledge Sharing in Organizations?
The curse of knowledge bias is a widespread phenomenon that has been documented cross-culturally and studied extensively.
It's a very real hindrance when it comes to acquiring new knowledge. And it not only impacts students in the classroom — but also adults in the workplace.
For example, let's say you have an expert in accounting on your team who wants to teach other employees about the basics of accounting.
The curse of knowledge could come into play if the expert assumes that everyone in the room understands accounting terminology, when in fact they don’t.
Even if they explain the concept in detail, the audience may not understand it because of their lack of foundational knowledge.
And simply being aware of this bias is not enough to overcome it, as it occurs even after people have been educated about the phenomenon, explicitly warned to avoid it, and provided with cash incentives to try to prevent it.
So what can be done?
It's often assumed that the best way to onboard new employees is to have the most experienced employees teach them. Even when it comes to training sessions, the employee with the most knowledge is put in charge.
On larger scales, corporate training is almost always led by upper management or those with the most expertise. Sometimes even external consultants are hired to provide training services.
But this can be a mistake, as these people know the material inside out and may not be the best at communicating it in an understandable and accessible way.
So instead of relying on the most knowledgeable employees or consultants, we would argue that peer-to-peer learning and information sharing can be much more beneficial.
How to Overcome the Curse of Knowledge
What makes this bias such a curse, is that it’s so difficult to overcome. As mentioned before, even when made aware of the bias, it's still difficult to avoid it.
It's not just about forgetting what it felt like not knowing that particular information, but also the lack of empathy and understanding for people who are just starting out or don't know much.
This could manifest itself when a manager is trying to train a new hire on how to use the company's CRM system.
The manager, who has used the software for years and is not only very familiar with it but also with the company's specific conventions and processes, may not be able to fully empathize with the new hire and overlook the importance of breaking down instructions into manageable chunks.