The Curse of Knowledge - What It Is and How It Affects Knowledge Sharing in Your Company

Nataša Mlađenović
Nataša Mlađenović
Feb 07, 20238 minute read

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”.

the curse of knowledge in companies - lorino

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.

Encourage Employee Development

Give employees the opportunity to share their knowledge and progress with each other.

The manager may also assume that certain steps or processes are obvious and quickly summarize them without providing any further explanation or guidance.

This would not only be frustrating for the new hire, but it could also lead to mistakes and misunderstandings, resulting in costly rework or delays.

But you know who hasn't forgotten what it feels like not to know something?

The people who have just learned it recently.

That's why peer-to-peer learning can be so effective — as someone who is only a few steps ahead is likely to be more aware of the learning curve and more patient when explaining something.

The Benefits of Peer-to-Peer Learning and Information Sharing

Having your employees teach one another not only helps improve their relationships, increases engagemen and knowledge retention, but it also helps mitigate the effects of the curse of knowledge.

When staff is teaching each other about processes, products, and systems, they can better convey the information in a way that's easy to understand and digest.

This can also help break down silos between departments, as training sessions now become collaborative rather than leader-centric.

Moreover, having a more balanced knowledge distribution throughout the organization can also help prevent any one person from becoming too indispensable or irreplaceable.

Establishing a Culture of Learning and Information Sharing in the Workplace

Sharing knowledge in the workplace has more than one barrier, but investing in your team's capacity to teach and learn from each other can help overcome most of them.

All your employees, regardless of tenure, are holding on to valuable information that could help the company in different ways, so it's important to create an environment where this knowledge can be shared easily and effectively.

And no, we are not talking about mandatory training sessions, but rather an informal learning culture, where everyone can contribute with their own expertise and learn from one another.

By providing the right tools, such as collaboration and knowledge-sharing platforms, you can give your employees the opportunity to teach themselves using resources developed by their peers.

It's also important for managers and team leaders to take the lead in this effort, by facilitating and encouraging knowledge sharing, as well as providing access to the right resources.

Finally, praise and recognition should be given to those who take the initiative to help others learn and share their knowledge. This will not only encourage more participation and collaboration among your team members, but it will also make them feel part of something bigger.

In Conclusion

The curse of knowledge can be a difficult obstacle to overcome in the workplace, but with the right approach and tools, you can create an environment where everyone has access to the same level of knowledge — which is essential for any organization that wants to stay competitive in today's world.

By investing in peer-to-peer learning and information sharing, you can mitigate the effects of the curse of knowledge, while creating a culture that encourages collaboration and teamwork.

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