Mental Models - The Curse of Knowledge 🎓
I think most of you will recognize this one - both as a communicator and as an audience!
What is the curse of knowledge?
The curse of knowledge occurs when someone is trying to communicate something, and assumes that the recipient has the background to understand.
Once we understand something - particularly when we have a high level of expertise in an area - we have a tendency to assume it to be obvious to everyone.
It's very hard - maybe impossible - to recall what it was like before we had the knowledge!
Here's an example about a lawyer who can't give a clear answer:
His vast knowledge and experience renders him unable to fathom how little you know. So when he talks to you, he talks in abstractions that you can’t follow. And we’re all like the lawyer in our own domain of expertise.
Why is this interesting?
If you think you might be suffering from the curse at work, don't feel too bad! As Dan and Chip Heath explain, you've "had years of immersion in the logic and conventions of business" and so you are simply summarizing the wealth of data in your head.
I like how Stephen Pinker puts it in his presentation in regards to written content:
It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that readers haven’t learned their jargon, don’t seem to know the intermediate steps that seem to them to be too obvious to mention, and can’t visualize a scene currently in the writer’s mind’s eye. And so the writer doesn’t bother to explain the jargon, or spell out the logic, or supply the concrete details...
This reminds me of some mental models we have already covered, such as unconscious competence - where you perform something so well you don't even have to think about it. It also seems like a bit of a reverse Dunning Kruger effect - being too knowledgable to remember what it was like to be unknowledgeable!
Much of the advice to overcome the curse centers on maintaining awareness of the audience's level of knowledge so you can communicate to their level. There's also suggestions to use concrete language as much as possible, and include stories. It's also worth remembering to "take them on the journey".
I'll leave you with a little of Pinker's advice:
The key is to assume that your readers are as intelligent and sophisticated as you are, but that they happen not to know something you know.
Want to go deeper?
🔖 The HBR article The Curse of Knowledge
🔖 The APS article The Curse of Knowledge: Pinker Describes a Key Cause of Bad Writing
🎥 Neat short video of the Stanford study on the curse of knowledge
📖 The Sense of Style is now on my reading list!
💎 I love this excerpt on why we might still fail to avoid the curse:
Even when we have an inkling that we are speaking in a specialized lingo, we may be reluctant to slip back into plain speech. It could betray to our peers the awful truth that we are still greenhorns, tenderfoots, newbies. And if our readers do know the lingo, we might be insulting their intelligence by spelling it out. We would rather run the risk of confusing them while at least appearing to be sophisticated than take a chance at belaboring the obvious while striking them as naïve or condescending.
🧠 Related mental models from the archive
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