I recently learnt about a concept called the curse of knowledge when I was reading Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath (great book by the way, it looks at “why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck”). I’d never heard the term before but now I have my brain’s doing that magic filter thing where I see examples of it everywhere (called the frequency illusion).
The curse of knowledge is used in psychology and refers to a specific cognitive bias. It’s when someone with more knowledge of a subject is talking about it or explaining it to someone with less knowledge and they forget the other person doesn’t know as much about it as they do. And possibly doesn’t know what the actual heck they’re talking about.
It’s easier to explain with an example.
The Curse of Knowledge
Chip and Dan use the example of tapping out a song.
So (go with me)… right now, I’m tapping out a song on my desk. I know what the song is, I know the tune and the rhythm, I can hear the instruments and the singer, I’ve probably heard the tune at least 30 times.
Which song is it?
I CANNOT BELIEVE you can’t tell what it is!
But all you’re hearing is some random tapping on a desk.
The results of a large study at Stanford University in 1990 showed that in tapping experiments, the ‘tappers’ thought that the ‘listeners’ would be able to work out which song they were tapping 50% of the time. The listeners actually got it right 2.5% of the time, they guessed 1 in 40 tunes correctly.
The tappers knew which songs they were tapping, they could hear them, they were singing them in their heads, and they couldn’t imagine how the listeners couldn’t get them.
The curse of knowledge is everywhere
The frequency illusion I mentioned (also called the Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon) means that when you get some new information or hear a new name, you start to see it everywhere. That has happened for me now I know this concept is called the curse of knowledge. You might experience it too…
You go onto a website and it talks in language you’d need an MSc in Computer Science to understand, a designer talks about the fold and the bleed as though you have any idea what they mean, or your lawyer spouts legalese until your eyes glaze over and you start fantasising about jumping out of the window.
And it’s easily done. You might have worked in your industry for 25 years and know everything there is to know about it, but your audience are unlikely to have the same amount of knowledge.
Which is why the first rule of copywriting is to write for your audience.
Your audience may not know what A/B testing is or how to upload a plugin or what a blueline is or whatever. And they may not really give two sh*ts. They come to you because you know all that stuff, they just want to find out how you can help them (or WIIFM: What’s In It For Me?).
Know your audience and how to speak to them
It’s hard to avoid the curse of knowledge and not deliberately show-off what an expert you are or accidentally talk in a language your audience doesn’t understand. But over-complicating things is not the way to go, confused minds don’t buy. We need to know all that stuff, people pay for our expertise, but our readers want to know how that helps them.
Oh yeah, that tune I was tapping? Single Ladies by Beyoncé. Couldn’t you tell?!
P.S. If you’re interested in psychology, you might enjoy these blogs about reader behaviour.