The Curse of Knowledge

By Greg Baer M.D.

December 29, 2017

Charles called me and expressed his impatience at the lack of responsibility he’d been seeing in his son, Mark.

“The Curse of Knowledge,” I said.

“What?” he asked.

I explained that most of us, once we have learned something, lose our ability to remember what it was like NOT to know it. Studies have demonstrated that because we know a thing, we have a tendency to believe we’ve always known it, and that leads to a belief that other people know it, or at the very least they SHOULD know it. As a result, we have little empathy for those who do not know it, and in that condition we are impatient and ineffective teachers of that thing we know.

Our knowledge creates a barrier—however unconscious—between us and people who do not know what we do. Two authors—Chip and Dan Heath—gave this obstacle a name: the Curse of Knowledge. If we are not aware of it, it can easily lead to disconnection, misunderstandings, and arrogance. When we’re teaching, we over-simplify, or we provide way too many details too early.

Let’s look at a couple of examples of the Curse of Knowledge:

You’re lost, even though you have a GPS device, so you pull over to ask directions from someone you assume lives in the area. He says, “Go left, drive a ways, turn right, take the left fork past the old Sanford place, and the house you’re looking for is on the right. You can’t miss it.” This person has lived in the area all his life, and he can’t remember a time when he didn’t know the location of that house you were looking for. So he teaches you like he’d teach himself—as though you already knew—which is useless for you.

You ask somebody to help you bake a soufflé for the first time, and she quickly runs through “how simple it is.” “You can’t fail,” she says. It turns out, though, that she has made a soufflé so many times that she neglects to tell you about adding lemon juice, not overwhipping the egg whites, using room temperature eggs, and more. So you follow her directions, but you fail, because your mentor couldn’t remember what it was like not to know how to make a perfect soufflé.

This Curse of Knowledge is what derailed the conversation between Charles and his son. “Charles,” I said, “do you consider yourself to be a responsible person?

“Yes,” he said.

Knowing him, I nodded. “And how did you learn that?”

He required considerable help with the answer, but my questions revealed that he learned responsibility as a result of a great number of innate personal characteristics, practice, childhood opportunities, choices, more practice, and so on.

“Did you take Mark through a similar training to learn responsibility,” I said, “or have you mainly just told him that he should be more responsible?”

Charles looked sheepish as he realized that he had not taught Mark to be responsible, only lectured him about how he should be. I explained the Curse of Knowledge, and eventually Charles learned how to teach Mark responsibility. It worked, and now they’re both much happier.

Don’t assume that everybody knows what you know. If you remember this, you will be more patient with people, more loving, more compassionate, less critical, and less disappointed. Don’t fall for the Curse of Knowledge. Rather, share your knowledge with love and patience.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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