The curse of Knowledge

How to Deal With the Curse of Knowledge


The Curse of Knowledge may imply that an expert in a given field may have difficulty teaching beginners because the expert intuitively assumes that things that are obvious to him or her are also obvious to beginners, even though this is not the case. When fact-checking, it can prevent others from understanding what you want to tell them. Therefore: keep it simple and stupid.

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that causes people to fail to properly understand the perspective of those who do not have as much information as them. This can cause issues in various areas of life, such as communicating effectively with others, predicting the behavior of others, or understanding their own past behavior. 



There are several things that you can do to reduce the curse of knowledge:

  • Increase your understanding of the bias and its impact: Specifically, understand what the curse of knowledge is, why it happens, how it affects people, and when and where it’s likely to affect people in general, and you in particular.


  • Maintain awareness of the bias and its impact: For example, in situations where you’re likely to be influenced by the curse of knowledge, remind yourself that others might not know everything that you do, and that this is important to keep that in mind when considering their perspective.


  • Identify the perspectives involved and the differences between them: For example, you can ask yourself what common knowledge you share with others, and what unique knowledge you have that others don’t.


  • Clearly identify what knowledge is needed: For example, if you’re angry at someone for not apologizing after acting in a way that hurt you, even though they might not even know that they hurt you, ask yourself what information they would need to have in order to know that they hurt you, and consider whether they actually have that information.


  • Get feedback from relevant individuals: For example, if you’re a teacher, you can ask students if they understood what you said, or ask questions that check their understanding. Similarly, if you’re talking to someone about a complex topic for the first time, you can start by asking them what they know, so you can properly gauge their level of understanding.


  • When in doubt, assume lack of knowledge: For example, if you’re a researcher who’s giving a talk to people who aren’t experts in your field, assume from the start that they won’t be familiar with highly technical terms, and make sure to either avoid those terms or explain them explicitly. This can be particularly useful in cases where you can’t get feedback from your audience, such as when the communication is primarily one-sided, so you can’t get much feedback while communicating. Furthermore, to facilitate communication and positive relationships with others, you should not only avoid taking it for granted that people know things if there are any doubts as to whether that is the case, but you should also avoid implying that they know these things. For example, you shouldn’t say things such as “obviously”, “clearly”, or “of course”, unless you’re absolutely sure that they’re appropriate, and even then it can be better to avoid them.


  • Use other debiasing techniques: For example, you can use various general debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process and improving your decision-making environment. In addition, you can use debiasing techniques that are meant to reduce egocentric biases, such as visualizing the perspective of others and then adjusting your judgment based on this, or using self-distancing language (e.g., by asking “are you teaching in a way that the students can understand?” instead of “am I teaching in a way that the students can understand?”).

You can also use these techniques to reduce other people’s curse of knowledge, and you can benefit from accounting for this bias even if you don’t reduce it, such as when predicting people’s teaching ability.


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