The Curse of Knowledge

In 1990, there was an experiment done in Stanford University by Dr. Elizabeth Newton for her Ph.D. In the experiment, she assigned 2 groups of people with 2 roles: Tappers & Listeners. (Hat tip to Made to Stick)

Tappers received a list of well-known songs and were asked to pick a song and tap out the rhythm to a listener by knocking on a table. The listener’s job was to guess the song, based on the rhythm being tapped.

Out of 120 times the songs were tapped, only 3 times the listeners got it right. Tappers had predicted in the beginning that at least 50% guesses would be correct.

What actually happens here is that, when I am tapping, the song is playing in my head. Happy-birthday-to-you. But it is not being played in your heads. As a listener, you don’t have the knowledge which I already have i.e. the rhythm of the song. When I tap, I assume that you should be able to guess easily, but that doesn’t really happen.

This, my friends, is called “The Curse of Knowledge”. It happens when having prior knowledge prohibits us from delivering the message across to the other party in a manner in which is not fully understood. Through my speech, I will attempt to indulge you in the practice of trying to make your message clearer and understandable.

Most often we mistake communication as a one-sided activity. We assume that if we have done our part of imparting the knowledge, the receiving party has understood everything. For example, when an engineer tries to explain some simple technology to a layman. We have all been through there, haven’t we? Have you ever tried to make your parents understand something you find very easy? Say using Instagram or installing Dropbox or even sending voice note on WhatsApp? Wasn’t there a struggle?

Lesson 1 of Communication, therefore, is when you communicate, get to the level of the person/audience you are speaking to.

Aaron Beverly, the 1st Runner Up of World Championship of Public Speaking 2016, had a 57-word title. 57-word title! And when he came up on the stage, all he said was “Just because you say more, it doesn’t mean that people will remember what you said.” It simply means that when we are giving some information to others, giving a lot of information won’t do any good. A 1000 word speech might not make the same impact as a 100-word speech. What you speak counts, not the amount you speak.

Lesson 2 of Communication, therefore, is when you communicate, don’t assume that more information means more understanding.

I will share a very small story to illustrate Lesson 3.

When World War 2 was towards its fag end around mid-1945, after victory in Europe, the Allied leaders Truman, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang Kai-Shek called for Japan’s unconditional surrender. When Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki was asked by reporters about the surrender, he uttered a single word, “Mokusatsu.”  Depending on context, mokusatsu has several meanings. Prime minister meant “No comment.” But, the meaning which was translated back to the Allies was “Not worthy of comment”. We all know what happened next.

Lesson 3 of Communication, therefore, is when you communicate, try to pay attention to the context.

In business, in work, in a relationship, we all suffer from the curse of knowledge. We often communicate in a way, which makes our message either diluted or exaggerated. We suffer from the knowledge imbalance like the Tappers and Listener.

Whenever next time you are talking to someone, or giving a presentation, or giving a speech in a Toastmasters Club, try to not get into the trap of ‘The Curse of Knowledge’. Rather, try to avoid it by remembering these 3 lessons of Communication which I have shared today.

One, understand your audience.

Two, don’t assume things.

Three, Context matters.


The above was my speech at Toastmasters Club Meeting on Jan 10, 2019. It went pretty well.