Do you ever feel like you're too smart for your field, or like you know way more than the people around you? The chances are that you're dealing with the "curse of knowledge," and you really do have too much experience.
While being exhaustively well-versed in your field or on a topic can seem powerful, there is a such thing as knowing too much.
What is the curse of knowledge?
The curse of knowledge is, essentially, a cognitive bias. It occurs when an individual is communicating with others and unknowingly assumes that those others have the same background to understand the topic to the same depth. They overestimate how much the others understand them.
Therefore, the more familiar you are with a topic, the more difficult it is for you to put yourself in the shoes of someone who is not so familiar with that topic. And, because you cannot unlearn the topic, you have a tough time seeing it with fresh eyes or boiling the topic down to the basics for people who are new to it. After all, you're so far removed from the basics that you cannot remember what questions or confusions you had when you were new to it, yourself.
The curse of knowledge, in short, means that you're too smart for your own good.
The term 'curse of knowledge' was first introduced in a 1989 paper published by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. Their research concluded that having more information is not always better, since having more knowledge than others can sometimes hinder your ability to predict how others will behave.
What are some examples of the curse of knowledge?
The curse of knowledge plagues people across all industries. Here are three examples of people who may have the curse of knowledge.
1. A professor has a difficult time teaching a subject to students.
Professors are where they are because they've studied and worked in their field for years — many of them for decades, and some even have published works and research under their belts. In short, they know their industries well, which is why they're there to teach them to students.
But, every now and again, there's a professor who is so smart in their field, but that doesn't make them the best teacher for it — rather, it makes them a terrible teacher. For example, you may have a biology professor who was a practicing biologist but cannot actually teach biology. It's been so long since they were a student of biology, so they have a tough time empathizing with students' questions and concerns. As a practiced biologist, the subject comes easy to them.
2. An entrepreneur has a tough time sharing their business idea to investors.
An entrepreneur may have an excellent business idea that they've spent years developing. They understand the ins and outs of the business, how it'll all work out, the risks and how they plan to minimize them and their profit potential. They've spent day in and day out researching their idea and fleshing it out.
That's why it's tough to boil it all down to one elevator pitch they need to sell their idea to investors. They're cursed with too much knowledge of the idea, and they don't know how to boil it down to the basics.
3. An English tutor has a tricky time explaining the language to English-as-a-second-language (ESL) students.
Native English speakers are often the best people to teach English to non-native English speakers. That's because, in theory, they understand more about the English language, and it comes naturally to them.
But because English comes naturally to them, it can indeed be difficult to explain certain language rules. An ESL student might be wondering why, for example, they're not allowed to end a sentence on a preposition or why an idiom means what it does. For the tutor, questions like these might be difficult to answer because the tutor just knows to do these things without always really grasping the why. They don't have these questions themselves, because this is how they've always operated and spoken. And that makes it hard to empathize with ESL students and field some of their questions.
How can the curse of knowledge affect your business?
The curse of knowledge can affect your business if you have a difficult time communicating with others. If you overestimate how much others understand you, for example, that could lead to a lot of complications from miscommunications. You also cannot predict how others will behave in or with regard to your business, because you cannot put yourself in their shoes.
Likewise, if you cannot explain your business in basic terms, you'll have a tough time garnering the interest of investors, communicating (and, therefore, enforcing) the company culture to your employees, motivating and inspiring your team to get on your level of commitment, etc.
How can you avoid the curse of knowledge?
Fortunately, there are ways that you can work around the curse of knowledge. Here are some steps you can take.
1. Check in.
When you're in a conversation with someone who may not have the same level of understanding or experience as you, be sure that you're regularly checking in with them to make sure that they're following. You can end with "Does that make sense?" or "Please don't hesitate to let me know if you have any questions or concerns," if you're communicating via email.
2. Learn how to read body language.
Body language speaks volumes. If you're in a conversation with someone and they're nodding along, that's a good sign that they're following what you're saying. If, however, they're looking away or getting noticably anxious, it might be a signal that they're confused. If you can read body language, you can take pauses in the conversation to clear up any confusions before proceeding.
3. Share stories and examples.
It's often easier for people to understand complex topics if they can relate to them in some way. And because stories and real-world examples are easier to relate to, sharing these can help someone with less knowledge on or experience with a topic to understand it.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreport and Facebook.