The Curse of Knowledge

A few weeks ago, my son came up to me and asked if I wanted to guess which song he was about to clap. I agreed, sure that it couldn’t be so hard to guess. But as soon as he started, I didn’t have the slightest idea which song he was clapping. He became a bit frustrated and insisted that I should try harder. I tried again, but I was as clueless as before. Then he revealed the song. I don’t recall which song it was, but I remember it was some well-known children's song. Why had it been so hard to guess the song? I mean, I get that all the claps sounded the same – but shouldn’t I still be able to recognize the melody of a song from a clapped rhythm?

What I experienced first-hand with my son, has been described by a Stanford University graduate student in psychology named Elizabeth Newton in 1990. Newton studied a simple game: She divided people into two groups, tappers and listeners. The tappers were given the task to tap out well-known songs, and the listeners were told to guess the songs. Before the experiment started, Newton asked the tappers, how many of their songs would be guessed correctly. They predicted 50 %. After the 120 songs were tapped out, the success ratio was sobering: 2.5 %. Only three out of the 120 songs were guessed correctly. Why?

Try tapping or clapping out a song yourself. (And don’t pick “We Will Rock You”, of course.) Once you start, you’ll immediately hear the melody of the song in your head, sometimes even with instruments or vocals. This makes us think that it can’t be so hard for others to guess the song. We might even be confident that we are fairly talented tappers, yay! Meanwhile, the listener will only hear tock, tock, tock tock tock, tock, tock tock…

When you have an advance in knowledge over someone else, it can be difficult to recognize this gap and act accordingly. This phenomenon – that we falsely assume that others have the background to understand – is called the curse of knowledge.

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that can be observed whenever people want to convey information. The readers of your article, the students in your class, the participants of your workshop, the listeners of your podcast, the people at your next meetup, the clients in your conference call, the users of your interface – they all don’t know what you know and are therefore missing context. Always. And while you are confidently talking and explaining like a pro, people actually don’t understand you as well as you would hope.

To overcome the curse of knowledge, it is first of all important to start with a beginner's mind: Remember how you felt as a beginner. What were the things that others assumed you would know? What might be hard to grasp for a beginner listening to you today? It is extremely hard to remember what it’s like to not know something, but it is necessary. Take terms like font-weight, leading, descender, bleed, overprinting, function, loop, closure, easing, friction, but also design system, Design Thinking, framework, ES Module, React, Vue, and so on: Our world is full of things that were once hard to understand. And the more abstract the concepts are, the larger the effect of the curse of knowledge will be. So remember to explain those things when they are crucial to understanding what you want to convey. Making something as easy and simple as possible is hard but it is key to communicating effectively. This requires that we go deep into a topic, that we understand it at its core to extract the essence – and then tell a story. Because stories make it easier to tell and understand even complex topics more easily.

Working against the curse of knowledge also requires us to understand the people we want to communicate with as good as possible. The people we create for might not only not know (and, in all honesty, don’t care) what a hamburger menu, a web font, or an accordion is, they will also have their own set of unique experiences, expectations, and specialist knowledge. Far too often, designers and developers dismiss those facts and assume that people will understand what is put in front of them. When people don’t get it, they are either dismissed as being DAUs (dumbest assumable users) or “clients who just don’t get design”. In reality, it is part of our job to recognize and overcome the curse of knowledge. So whatever it is you are about to create today: Think about how the curse of knowledge might cloud your judgment and do what is necessary to make your creation better. Often, all it takes is creating a quick draft or building a prototype to create a shared understanding and to better see where information imbalances exist.

This is the first post of my 100 days of writing series. You can find a list of all posts here.


17 Webmentions

Photo of Tom Tinkerson
Tom Tinkerson
"…they all don’t know what you know and are therefore missing context. Always. And while you are confidently talking and explaining like a pro, people actually don’t understand you as well as you would hope" ????;…
Photo of Adactio Links
Adactio Links
The Curse of Knowledge · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer…
Photo of Abhilash Prabhu
Abhilash Prabhu
The Curse of Knowledge (…) by Mathias Ott. Thanks @nitinkhanna ( and P.S.: I know markdown formatting. Crossposting to LinkedIn seems to strip it.
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Andreas Huber
The Curse of Knowledge, by @m_ott… #soTrue
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Martin Hahn
The Curse of Knowledge… by @m_ott