in Leadership

The Curse of Knowledge turns your smarts against you and it ain’t pretty.

I had very positive responses from my post Startup Lessons Learned from my Failed Startup, but give enough eyeballs (100k+ in that post’s case) and obviously there are some people who will have different opinions.  And that’s ok. Everyone has an opinion. But some of the comments were criticizing the amount of time I took to learn what I learned (almost 2 years). Stuff like:

“I can’t understand how Sergio spent 2 years on this, when just a couple of conversations with real managers would say they won’t ever use it.”

And:

“I rarely comment on blogs, but this is just common sense. Sorry it took you 2 years to figure this out.”

To be frank, I also criticize myself for this. “Why couldn’t I learn this in 1 year? 1 month maybe? I must be a slow learner” *sigh*

Than something began to dawn on me: of course those people could not believe it took me almost 2 years to learn it, they are suffering from the “Curse of Knowledge”!

“What is the ‘Curse of Knowledge’”? Get this:

A research was made where there would be 2 kind of roles: the tappers and the listeners. The tappers job was to tap on the table a common melody of a very known song (like happy birthday). The listeners would have to listen (duh) and name correctly which song was the tapper tapping. How many times do you think the listener guessed the right song? Don’t jump to the next paragraph, really think how many times would someone guess correctly if you tapped “happy birthday” on the table.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120. But here’s what made the result worthy: before the listeners guessed the name of the song, they asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent. The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

The answer is the Curse of Knowledge. When we know the name of the song, it’s very hard to act as you don’t know it and put yourself in the shoes of the listeners. When you are tapping, it’s almost impossible to not listen the song in your head. It becomes obvious which song it is, because you already know it. Try it out, tap “happy birthday” on the table and listen to it, you hear the song while tapping. The same thing happens in a miming game, how many times were you bummed by how people didn’t get your outstanding Mao Tse-Tung mime? It’s easy because you already know the answer. Another example is jargon, I once worked in an organization that would turn everything into acronyms, like “MCVP OGX” (I am not kidding, this was a real thing and I know exactly what it meant). Jargon is the Curse of Knowledge’s best friend.

The result of the Curse of Knowledge is people talking in abstractions, instead of concretely. A CEO suffering from the Curse of Knowledge talks about “increasing shareholder value” or “world class customer service”. The CEO is listening to the song in his head, “world class customer service” does ring a clear bell in his mind – unfortunately, to the people in customer service, that is too abstract, too high level for anyone to ACT upon it. What does it really mean?

How to beat the Curse of Knowledge? Easy: being concrete. Use plain talk. If you want your employees to be better at customer service, what do you think would help most: a passionate talk by the CEO about “achieving world class customer service” or a story about a customer service person who gift wrapped a product, even though it was bought in a competitor’s store? Or a shop attendant who ironed a shirt for a client so he could go to a business meeting?

These were all stories (which in general are concrete by nature), but to be concrete you don’t necessarily need stories. Take when I was President of AIESEC Norway: we had a goal in our team that we wanted “one exchange happening every day” (“exchanges” in AIESEC were a major business metric). It is very concrete stuff, one exchange, every day, that is what we consider success. People can act accordingly to get to that. On the opposite “increase our performance” is too vague and abstract.

The Curse of Knowledge is real, avoid it like a curse – *ba dum tss*.


The Curse of Knowledge appears on Made to Stick, an outstanding book about building messages that stick to people’s brains.

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