Cognition Corner #5 – The Curse of Knowledge

The human mind is riddled with quirks that can skew judgement and perception, regardless of where you stand on the corporate ladder. And in fact, a higher level of knowledge or expertise can sometimes impair your ability to communicate with and understand others.

Knowledge is Sour
“Write what you know. That should leave you with a lot of free time.”
– Howard Nemerov

“It was better to know the worst than to wonder.”
– Margaret Mitchel

We know that empathy is the ability to vicariously experience someone else’s pain or happiness, and we know that people have it in greater or lesser amounts. The “Curse of Knowledge” describes our lack of empathy about other people’s understanding. It is our consistent inability to predict how people with different knowledge will behave. Classic examples are the brilliant professor or veteran CEO that simply can’t recall what it’s like to be a first-year student or a brand new hire, which impairs their ability to properly teach or lead.

A beautiful experimental example came from a “music tapping” study. Some people were tappers and would tap out the rhythm of a popular song. Others were listeners and would try to guess the song being tapped. Tappers thought that listeners would be able to guess the song right about half of the time. The actual success rate was under 3%. When we know the song, we find it easy to “hear” in our tapping; we’re incredibly bad at putting ourselves into the shoes of someone who wasn’t given the song beforehand.

If you’ve ever sat down at a table with a group of people from another industry, you’ll likely know this feeling firsthand.

“So what do you do?”

“I work at CAMH as the PI on a study about the effects of DBT on BPD.”

This person is assuming that other people have the same information that they do. Often, this isn’t the case.

Mind the Gaps
Knowledge can undermine our ability to predict the behavior of others, but so can emotion. In Psychology, this is called the “empathy gap.” When we are in a heightened emotional state (from anger, stress, etc.) we find it hard to predict the behavior of those who are calm (and vice versa). What’s more, we can’t even accurately predict our own future behavior if we are in the opposite state. You may know this feeling if you’ve ever volunteered – in a cavalier moment – to lead a presentation or speak at a conference. When you sign up, it can feel like no big deal; that’s because you can’t accurately predict just how stressed you’re going to feel the night before you have to speak.

This effect can make bosses behave insensitively when their employees are stressed. They are in a calm emotional state and therefore can’t understand what it feels like to be frantic and stressed in the moment.

One way to reduce this effect is to make a conscious effort to understand every facet of a situation. What is the emotional state of everyone involved? What is your own emotional state? Thinking about these factors can make you more emotionally intelligent. And it will also ensure that you don’t turn down that awesome party in two weeks just because you’re stressed and irritable right now.

Remember to check this space regularly for future installments of Cognition Corner!

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  1. Kate McCubbbin-Sprack

    I think you have hit the nail on the head with this post. As much experience as people have collaborating, there are still challenges with differing opinions and “the Curse of Knowledge”. The analogy of “music tapping” really helped to visualize this. With collaboration there needs to be a strong sense of reciprocity. As you mentioned, minding the gaps allows you to develop your emotional intelligence but also your ability to share your thinking more eloquently to become “in-tune” with a larger and more diverse audience.

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