Article • April 30, 2019

The curse of knowledge or “It seemed so clear to me”

By Krista Gerhard

Salience Learning Curse of Knowledge blog image

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when a person (think of a trainer or a subject matter expert) is communicating with a learner and assumes the learner has the background knowledge to comprehend the communication.  I’m sure that textbook definition sounds very dry and boring, so let’s try a little activity to illustrate the concept.

Think about your favorite song or piece of music.  Now, go find some friends.  Don’t tell them the name of the song.  Just ask them to see if they can guess the song as you play out the tune.  Here’s the catch: your only instruments are your knuckles and a table.  Yes, to “play” the tune, all you can do is knock the melody or the most recognizable part of the song on a table. 

Here’s what you’re likely to notice: Because you know the song, your patterned and purposeful knocks will sound like a dead-on match to the song’s melody.  You say to yourself, “Surely, they’ll guess it straight away, right?” 

Well, probably not.  To your friends’ ears, the tune you are hearing in your head is likely to sound like a bunch of senseless knocking, as they don’t have the prior knowledge to interpret the information. That’s the curse of knowledge. As a side note, this experiment was popularized by a Stanford PhD students research study in 1990 where only 2.5% of the listeners were able to identify the song[1]

Now, let’s try it on you. 

Click on the player below and take a listen.  On it, we’ve “knocked out” a very well-known tune.  Can you guess it?

At the end of this article, we’ll reveal the name of the song.  

Why is it important to consider the Curse of Knowledge when designing learning?

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a communication that went right over your head?  I have. Once when creating a learning experience around Next Generation Sequencing (NGS), I had the pleasure of interviewing a very knowledgeable subject matter expert (SME) to inform the design. 

While I am familiar with oncology, its marketplace and that marketplace’s unique business dynamics, at my first meeting with the SME after sharing this background, he assumed I also had a deep scientific understanding of diagnostics. As such he dove into a passionate and highly scientific explanation filled with technical terms and acronyms. Which, while accurate, fell like senseless knocking on my ears.  

This isn’t to say he was at fault. To him, certain knowledge was obvious and assumed. However, not for me.  Needless to say, he was extremely gracious as I asked questions to deconstruct his knowledge into its foundational elements in order to build up my own and create an appropriately complex design for the target learner.

But imagine if I hadn’t?  Imagine if the final experience was simply this same good-hearted SME presenting this highly complex information for, say, an hour in a dark ballroom with equally complex slides as its backdrop with no time allotted for learners to ask questions to clarify and relate this new information to the prior knowledge. This is the how the Curse of Knowledge can hamper learning and, unfortunately, it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

How can we save learning from the Curse of Knowledge?

As professionals who design learning programs, it’s essential to have an understanding of your learners’ current and prior understanding of a topic.  To properly learn new things, learners must be able to place new information into an existing mental framework of understanding.  If learners don’t have one, then new information can fail to “stick”.  

To avoid that outcome, you need to know your learner’s baseline level of knowledge.  If they don’t have a framework, then you’ll need to help build it by exposing them to—and causing them to engage with—the proper level of foundational knowledge and also relating the new knowledge in some way to other frameworks or knowledge they do have.

In short:  Know your learners, ensure they have a strong foundational framework (or help them build one), and keep your SMEs grounded in the learners’ level of knowledge to avoid high-quality learning turning into senseless knocking.

Now, how about that song? It is actually the most popular song in the world: Disney’s It’s a Small World (After All).  Readers from across the world have likely heard it at a Disney Theme Park in the US, Europe, Japan, or Hong Kong.  Now that you know the song, go back and listen to the recording again. We hypothesize that this time around you’ll “hear” the melody loud and clear and say perhaps, “Its so clear to me!”  But then you’ll pause and remember how once you have the knowledge you can be cursed.