I recently noted the curse of knowledge at work. And indeed, that is where the idea to write this post came from. As a routine, my daughter will ask either her mother or me to help out with her homework.
It happened on this particular day the responsibility fell on her mother. “How many legs do I, you, your brother and your dad have?” my wife asked. The eight-year-old looked at me and turned to her mother with I-know-it smile.
“Two,” she said.
“Um! I counted four people,” my wife said while gently waving the exercise book in her hand sideways. My daughter looked at me again. I could see that confusion was fast replacing confidence on her face.
She shrugged narrowed her eyes and mumbled the same word; two.
Then it dawned on her mother that there was a problem with the way she framed the question. While, in her mind, she was thinking about the total number of legs the four of us had, that detail-of total-didn’t get out to the little girl.
What my daughter thought she was being asked to do instead is to give the number of legs each one of us has, which is two of course. And that is basically, though subtle in this case, a curse of knowledge at work.
What is a curse of knowledge
A curse of knowledge is in action when a speaker or writer passes incomplete messages, ideas or instructions with the subconscious assumption that the reader or the listener will fill in the blanks. Unfortunately, hardly anyone can read the mind of another. For the most part, we all rely on what we hear, see, touch, smell, and taste to make sense of things around us.
The curse of knowledge is also in action when a speaker or writer is too technical for the comprehension of the listener or reader. Sometimes, when you’ve spent many years studying or researching a topic your level of simplicity in it rises significantly. Then it turns out that what you consider basics isn’t basic for your reader.
No one puts it better than Chip and Dan Heath in their book ‘Made to Stick,’ (A book I recommend anyone thinking of making writing a career to read). “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us,” they state, “And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”
Elizabeth Newton, Stanford University graduate student in psychology, is the one who popularized the term curse of knowledge. In the early 1990s, she published results on an experiment she called ‘Tappers and Listeners.’
In the research, she had asked one group of individuals to tap rhythms of popular songs like ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’ She asked a second group of individual to listen and point out what the songs were.
Only 10% of the listeners were able to identify the songs. Interestingly, those tapping found it hard to understand why the listeners couldn’t recognize such popular songs from their tapped rhythms.
Unfortunately, this also applies to when we pass ideas, instructions or even our feelings. We provide bits of information to our audience (or readers in this case), but we forget to give them the basic pieces, which are important if they are to make sense of the bigger picture.
Of course, if someone gives you a title of a song you know and begins tapping its rhythm, you would easily chip in with its words. Unfortunately, we most of the time tap rhythms without giving titles of the songs to our listeners or readers. Thus they end up struggling with our content or just give up before they try.
Being conscious of the curse of knowledge is of particular importance to writers. That is because, in verbal communications, listeners have the opportunity to ask follow-up questions, seek immediate clarification or get extra meaning from your body language. These opportunities aren’t available in the written word. At least not immediately.
What can you do to get the curse of knowledge out of your readers’ way?
#1-Know your reader well
Knowing your reader is a piece of advice you will receive from nearly every writing seminar, writing blog and any other platform where writing tips are served. However, it is still worth it to repeat it here and elsewhere.
It doesn’t matter how well you write or how meticulous you are with your research, if you don’t know who you are writing it for, you are far from doing good. You are likely to end up with quality work that sadly doesn’t resonate with your readers.
And one of the things that will make it be out of touch with your readers is the curse of knowledge. That is either your content is too advanced for their level of understanding, or you’ve left out basic information that could help them understand your message better.
It is critical to know your readers’ demographics, their level of education and even the kind of job they do. But that is not enough. Even more, you need to know their dreams, pains, and inspirations. You need to know whether it is love, money or peer-approval that drives them.
#2-Edit and proofread your text
Yes thoroughly edit and proofread your work, but don’t do it immediately after writing the first draft. Give it some time, a few hours if you are on a tight schedule. However, the more time between the writing and the editing modes the better.
Also, do the editing to catch information holes or too technical content on your draft separately from when you check for grammatical, structural and factual errors.
While looking out for the curse of knowledge, the one trick I have found very effective is to read the draft out loud. You can do this at least a couple of times. Indeed, reading aloud puts you in the shoes of the reader, which can help fix the problem.
#3-Let someone else have a look at your work
It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are, you will always benefit a great deal from the second pair of eyes pouring over your work before it is published. That is even truer when we talk about the curse of knowledge.
The editor isn’t privileged with the background information you have in your mind as they read your work. Thus it easier for them to catch the information holes in your text, as well content that is beyond the comprehension of your reader.
Of course, it isn’t easy to find an experienced professional editor. However, there are now many services, especially online by both brands and freelancing individuals. However, in case you aren’t in the position to hire an editor, you should consider finding a writing partner. This is a fellow writer who like you is looking for editing services. They will edit your work with the expectation that you will edit theirs in exchange.
I love to hear what you have to say about the curse of knowledge. Please share your opinion, question or comment below.