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The Curse of Knowledge

 
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Have you ever had that maddening feeling when reluctantly taking part in your annual game of charades where you have given every gesture, sign and ‘sounds like’ to make the answer painfully obvious, but all you see is blank faces staring back at you? We’ve all been there. How on earth can these people not understand what I am quite obviously laying on a plate for them? It’s a common feeling and one that extends beyond a festive game with the in-laws. What you’re experiencing is something that individuals and businesses face every time they communicate internally or externally; the ‘curse of knowledge’.

The research

The phrase ‘curse of knowledge’ was coined in a paper published by Camerer, Loewenstein and Weber in the Journal of Political Economy (1989, vol. 97, no. 5). Essentially, it describes the cognitive bias that leads those who know ‘something’ unwittingly being unable to put themselves in the mindset of those who don’t.

In 1990, a Stanford graduate student named Elizabeth Newton designed an experiment to highlight the phenomenon. One group of students, known as ‘tappers’, were asked to tap 120 well known songs to a group of ‘listeners’. Before they started, the tappers had been asked to predict how many of the songs the listeners would be able to guess correctly, settling on a figure of 50%. However, over the course of the experiment only 3 of the 120 songs were correctly identified; a success rate of 2.5%.

So, why was there such a disparity? Put simply, it figures that in order to tap out the song the tapper must play along the song in their head. Meanwhile the listener, without the song to accompany the taps, just hears a seemingly random pattern of taps with no context at all. The tapper can’t un-know the song in their head, hence being ‘cursed’ by the knowledge. This difference in understanding can inevitably lead to miscommunication, and a lack of engagement from the listener.

 
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The man in the mirror

When our design agency, Luna 9, was in its infancy I attended a raft of networking events to spread the word and hone my elevator pitch. With the wonderful benefit of hindsight, I can now see that, even as the co-founder of an agency whose sole purpose is to help companies communicate with their audience, I spoke to people with the assumption that they would just ‘get’ what I was saying. If they didn’t understand it must be down to their lack of understanding; not my explanation. This is a common but seriously damaging assumption. It’s not their job to decipher what I’m saying; it’s mine to make sure I speak to them in way that they really relate to. This was a real eureka moment. If I was falling foul to the curse of knowledge, and potential clients didn’t fully understand what we did or why we did it, how could I expect them to trust us to deliver?

Research has indicated that this is something that is hardwired into our brains. It takes effort and experience to be able to step out of the bubble that you are in and really put yourself in the shoes of the audience you are talking to. I’m attempting to do it now. I hope it’s working.

How we beat the curse

Putting yourself in the mindset of someone who is new to whatever subject you are communicating is tough at the best of times, let alone when you spend all day living and breathing it. But without stepping out of your bubble and considering how your audience will interpret what you, or your business, is saying, you run a high risk of losing engagement and creating a disconnect between your customers and your brand. At Luna 9 we believe that half the battle is understanding the theory behind how we communicate, and using that as the platform from which to start our design work.

It’s amazing how just being aware of this phenomenon makes you much better equipped to avoid it. The irony that it takes this knowledge to deal with the curse of knowledge is not lost on me, but small changes to the way you communicate can make a huge difference to whether your listeners really understand what you and your business are tapping.

 
 
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Michael Green
Co-founder and Creative

 
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