The Curse of Knowledge

I recently learnt about a concept called the ‘the curse of knowledge’ while 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.

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 or explaining it to someone with less knowledge and forgetting that the other person doesn’t have the same level of knowledge as they do.

It’s easier to explain it 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.

I  CANNOT BELIEVE  that 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 got 1 in 40 tunes right. Because the tappers knew which songs they were tapping, they couldn’t imagine not knowing.

curse of knowledge

When you start spotting the curse of knowledge you see it in lots of writing and marketing too

When you start thinking about it, you see it everywhere; you go on to a consumer 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.

It’s easily done when you’re writing or talking about your own industry, we all know so much about what we do and we’re passionate about sharing it.

However, the detail may be fascinating to us but it’s not necessarily that exciting for our potential clients.

Whenever you write about your business, be it on your website, in a blog or your company brochure, the first rule 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. They may not want or need to know either! It’s more likely that they want YOU to know about it and translate your knowledge into how it will help them.

Know your audience and how to speak to them

It is hard to avoid the curse of knowledge, and, as business owners, we want people to realise that we know our stuff. But over-complicating things is not the way to go. We have to know who our audience is, why they come to us and how we should speak to them.

Oh yeah, and that tune I’ve been tapping? It’s ‘Single Ladies’ by Beyoncé. Couldn’t you tell?!

Have you come across the curse of knowledge? Please let me know in the Comments below and feel free to share any examples you spot.


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2 thoughts on “The Curse of Knowledge

  1. Pingback: Review of Made to Stick by Chip & Dan Heath: WordNerd Blog
  2. Pingback: 5 Copywriting Tips to Overcome Buyers' Inertia | WordNerd

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