The Curse of Knowledge

Image source: Tim Green
Image source: Tim Green

I have procrastinated doing a blog post on ‘the curse of knowledge’ for a long time. This topic was mentioned in a session I attended at the University last week and I knew it was finally time to do a post on this topic. I encountered the ‘curse of knowledge’ in a fabulous book by Chip and Dan Heath called ‘Made to Stick‘. If you are interested in how to become an effective communicator, get this book.

The ‘curse of knowledge’ is a cognitive bias based on the concept that when you know a topic very well then it is difficult to adopt the perspective of someone who doesn’t know much about that topic. Experts find it difficult to remember what it is like to be clueless about a topic they have mastered. This is usually why those who are knowledgeable about a topic find it frustrating to teach those who are not. What is obvious to them because of their expertise and deep understanding of the subject is not so obvious to the beginner/novice who is trying to make sense of that subject or topic for the first time.

The major difference between the brain of an expert and a beginner is in the construction of neural pathways which the expert has developed over time about a particular topic. The more we learn about a topic, the more new neural pathways we develop in our brains which become stronger the more they are used thus enabling us to form new connections and recall information about that topic. An expert therefore has more neural pathway connections in his brain regarding a learnt subject compared to a beginner who has little or none.

I believe that just as the curse of knowledge makes it difficult for the expert to adopt a beginner’s mindset in terms of communicating or sharing knowledge; it also hinders innovative breakthroughs in one’s subject domain. The problem is that in-depth knowledge enables you to see the obvious in your field but it also prevents you from unseeing it in order to have fresh ideas. This is the reason why game changing breakthroughs in certain industries come from outsiders. These are people with beginner mindsets; they know just enough but not too much to be trapped or cursed by the prevalent unchallenged ideas of that field/industry. You therefore have the situation whereby the more you know, the less you see. There is a popular quote by Shunryu Suzuki which states that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few”.

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