Recently, Tim Harford, the undercover economist at the FT, had a fascinating piece in the newspaper’s magazine.
What is the Curse of Knowledge?
Have you ever been in that situation where you’re trying to explain something to somebody, and they don’t seem to get it? You repeatedly spell it out and clarify your points, but they still look blankly at you or ask stupid questions. Similarly, an expert, perhaps a lawyer, a car mechanic or an official from your local council might be explaining a problem or a procedure to you, and it just means nothing at all.
They use words and phrases that are unfamiliar or seem to be hopelessly out of context. The language could be basic, but still, you don’t understand what they’re talking about. You get frustrated and annoyed with them, and the feeling is reciprocated.
This is an example of the Curse of Knowledge in practice. Originally demonstrated by Elizabeth Newton, a researcher at Stanford. In 1990, participants were asked to tap out a well-known tune that other people were invited to guess. The people doing the tapping were asked to estimate how often the listeners would guess the theme right. The scientists estimated that the people would guess that purely on their tapping, they’d be correct about 50 per cent of the time. In reality, the listeners were able to guess right on about 2.5 per cent of occasions.
What does this tell us? The tune playing in our mind is evident to us, so we assume that others hear it in the same way. But they’re not. More generally, we tend to assume others will know what we know.
Tim Harford adds another example that we hadn’t heard of before. This time a psychologist called Justin Kruger asked participants to write two sentences, one of which was straightforward while the other was horribly sarcastic. They were then asked to estimate how difficult other people would find it to spot the sarcastic version. The writers believed the recipients would be right almost every time. Twenty per cent of sentences were misinterpreted.
Communicate Media Training and the Curse of Knowledge
We provide media training courses for law firms, financial services firms, architects, scientific organisations and other groups who have complex issues to explain. But we also find the Curse of Knowledge comes into play when we work with interior designers, retailers, restaurant chains and other organisations.
As Tim Harford points out in his piece, human beings tend to be egocentric – we see the world from the inside out, and that means very often we can’t understand why people don’t understand what we know.
Participants in our media training workshops who already have done media interviews sometimes complain about journalists asking “stupid“ questions. Given that we use working journalists (under strict nondisclosure agreements), we can explain why the media will ask these questions, which might be seen as naïve or foolish – it’s because we want to explain it clearly to our audiences who might be intelligent and curious but aren’t versed in every detail of the world in which the interviewee lives.
So how can you overcome the Curse of Knowledge and increase the chances of the journalist understanding your key messages? Well, you can start by knowing a bit more about their world. Are they an expert in this particular sector, a specialist writer? Or are they general reporters? If it’s the latter, you’re going to have to work harder to explain your ideas. Ideally, your PR company or in-house communications team can give you some background on the reporter, but even then, it’s worth just checking in with them about how much they know about the subject. “I don’t know at what stage you are with your research?” is an excellent opening gambit. Our working journalist/media trainers will tell you that this often provides a good excuse to say, “I don’t know much at all – please start at square one.”
Of course, the best way to explain any concept or idea of technology is to use an example. As we say in our media coaching sessions – it’s never too early to come to an example. Introducing an analogy or an anecdote based on everyday experience is a great way of explaining to a general audience what you’re talking about. Once you’re known as the expert who can explain your specialism to a general audience, you’ll find that journalists come back again and again, giving you rather than your competitors coverage.
We learn so much during our media training courses, and we love it – that’s what gets journalists up in the morning, believe it or not. But we also enjoy the fact that participants on our courses become aware of the Curse of Knowledge and learn how to overcome it and become better communicators.
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