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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C

Be wary of the curse of knowledge

To communicate clearly, you need to be aware of what you might know too well.

PEOPLE WITH AN in-depth knowledge of a topic are prime targets for what we call the curse of knowledge. Sufferers, while smart and experienced, are unable to communicate in a clear, understandable way.

The concept was encapsulated in ‘The Tappers and Listeners experiment’; run by Stanford University in 1990 and popularised in the book Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath.

The experiment gave each subject one of two roles: they were either a ‘tapper’ or a ‘listener’. Every tapper was given a well-known tune – such as ‘Happy Birthday’ – to tap out on a desk. The listener then had to guess the song.

The experiment was repeated 120 times. Listeners gave the correct answer only three times, a 2.5% success rate.

The interesting finding was how 50% of the tappers believed the listener would guess correctly. Those 60 tappers thought they had nailed it and that their listener must have guessed the tune, such was the clarity of their performance. Once they had the tune in their heads, it was difficult to remember it not being there.

This experiment demonstrates a simple concept – that once you know something, it’s difficult to put yourself back in the position of not knowing it.

In this case it was a simple melody, but in my experience the same applies to the communication of ideas and information.

Basis in neurology

This is only one study, but the core concept has a solid basis in neurology.

The Theory of Mind (ToM) is a neurological term referring to the ability to think about what might be occurring in someone else’s mind. Achieving ToM is a landmark stage in a child’s development. It occurs at around age four and helps us understand why a person acts in a certain way and to predict how someone might act next.

Without it, we fail to understand that not everyone thinks the way we do, or knows what we know.

So, as explained by the neurologist Robert Sapolsky in his book Behave, a three-year-old talking to a child from another school will likely assume that the other child knows the first child’s teacher, Mrs O’Sullivan.

While a four-year-old, who has developed ToM, will know that they are the only one in the room lucky enough to have such an amazing teacher and knows to explain this mid conversation – “Mrs O’Sullivan said, oh Mrs O’ Sullivan is my teacher, and she has brown hair and is always right, that…”

In the same way that we also develop impulse control in childhood, but selectively apply it as adults, further studies have shown that while most adults have fully developed ToM, we do not always engage it. This is when the curse of knowledge kicks in.

We see its symptoms in action every day. We see it in the business leader who talks of personnel matrixes, directional leadership and mission statements. 

We see it in the internal interview candidate who assumes that their CEO has an intimate knowledge of all the great work they did over the past three years and so neglects to remind them at interview.

We see it in the employee who talks solely in TLAs (three letter acronyms) while promising that they would unlock the value of their product’s USP by COB Friday if only they weren’t OOO from Wednesday.

We hear it when the medical professional on our radio is trying to explain the complex issues facing our health service, unable to grasp that not everyone has the benefit of a decade of medical education.

Luckily the majority of adults achieve ToM and therefore have the capability to understand and assess the level of understanding of their audience. We just often forget to do it. 

Common sense

The single most essential solution to overcoming this barrier to good communication is simple to apply.

Think about who you are talking to before you start talking to them. If this seems like common sense advice, it’s because it is. But in my experience, it’s rarely applied.

You need to think, really think, about what your audience actually knows and understands about your topic. What terms can they understand without thinking, even for a split second? How much experience of your area have they had recently? How familiar are they with your background?

The aim is to establish what do they know, as opposed to what you think they should know.

Two years ago, I was brought into a company to help facilitate a conversation between company executives and middle management. Relationships were frayed and communication had broken down.

One of the issues we uncovered was that middle management were frustrated with being asked to turn around, on short notice, a task that took 12 hours to complete.

This consistently put their schedules out of whack, was putting their teams under pressure and was a significant factor in the communication issues the company was having.

The kicker? The senior leadership team had no idea the task in question took that long. They assumed it was routine and quick, and they had never been told otherwise.

Maybe they should have known, but the fact remains that the assumption of knowledge by the middle management led to months of work for their teams, and stress for them. That’s the curse of knowledge in action.

Over the coming months, this column will look at other methods of clear, concrete communication to help overcome this issue.

The use of story, the avoidance of information overload, the outright banning of conceptual language will all help, but no approach will be effective if you don’t create the habit of thinking about your audience before you open your mouth.

Lorcan Nyhan is a senior consultant and the head of careers at The Communications Clinic.

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Written by Lorcan Nyhan and posted on

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