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The Curse of Knowledge

Karis Tobias


As a student and TA of the Launch School community, the other day I conducted my very first study group. This particular group was a beginner session to reinforce programming fundamentals, and answer any questions they might have.

While the session went well, there was a moment that stood out to me as an important, often overlooked part of teaching — heck, any kind of communication.

It began when a student in the session asked me about recursion, and if I could supply a real world example.

“Recursion?” I wondered. “Why would a student want to know about an advanced topic right at the beginning of their studies?”

Putting that thought aside, I decided how I could answer. Coincidentally, I had just learned that recursion was an excellent way to “walk the list” of a DOM tree in order to modify the data and behaviour of a web application.

As I was about to deliver this information, I hesitated. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “If this student is attending a beginner session, it’s very likely that they will have no idea what I’m talking about!”

Here lies the dilemma of what many individuals will face as their understanding of a topic increases: The Curse of Knowledge.

The idea here is that you know a concept well, but others outside your level of expertise will not. Your job then is to deliver the information in plain English, and bridge their understanding with one foot in familiar territory, and the other in the unfamiliar.

The Curse of Knowledge is not a new idea. It belongs to the brilliant minds of brothers and educators Chip and Dan Heath, in their book: Made to Stick.

In the book, they explain the problem of the Curse of Knowledge through the story of a struggling company trying to prove why they should exist. The brothers were conducting a non-profit seminar to help organisations get clear on their core mission.

Having a clear core mission helps others care about your organisation and support your cause through volunteering, donations and continued employment.

One such organisation — The Murray Duo Piano Foundation — had a lot of trouble getting the other attendees to understand their core mission statement, which read:

We exist to protect, preserve, and promote the music of duo piano.

This statement doesn’t say much at all — does it? But it made perfect sense to the organisation. Why wouldn’t it? They understood the music of Duo Piano.

The problem was no one else in the room did.

It took over 10 minutes of persistent questioning until one attendee finally asked — “Why would the world be a less rich place if Duo Pianos disappeared completely?” The Foundation was shocked by this question, then finally answered:

The piano is this magnificent instrument. It was created to put the entire range and tonal quality of the whole orchestra under the control of one performer. There is no other instrument that has the same breadth and range. And when you put two of these magnificent instruments in the same room, and the performers can respond to each other and build on each other, it’s like having the sound of the orchestra but the intimacy of chamber music.

Suddenly it all made sense.

Everyone at the seminar finally understood why Duo Pianos were so important. But why did it take so long for The Murray Duo Piano Foundation to arrive at an explanation that everyone could understand?

Because they were affected by the Curse of Knowledge. The Heath Brothers leave us with the insight that:

If you come to work every day for years, focused on Duo Piano issues, it’s easy to forget that a lot of the world has never heard of the Duo Piano.

Similarly, a brand new programming student has never heard of “walking the DOM list as a great example of recursion in the real world”. Telling them this would be the Curse of Knowledge at play.

If I had mentioned this to my study group it would have fallen on deaf ears. Heck, some may have even felt alienated and lost confidence in their ability to grasp other advanced programming concepts.

I wanted to reduce their uncertainty, not enhance it.

So, with trepidation I started from a place where they may be able to understand.

One foot in familiar territory.

I asked if they knew what an HTML document was, and what it looked like. One or two students nervously raised their hands, as I went on to explain that recursion can be used to extract deeply nested information on a webpage.

Though simpler than my original answer, I knew this answer was still a bit ambitious. And sure enough, though the student was grateful, the explanation went right over their head.

Which goes to show how powerful the Curse of Knowledge can be — even if you haven’t spent decades in a field.

Perhaps I could have led with a metaphor, or withheld the information altogether, telling them it would be explained as they progressed through the course. But I went with this answer, because I strongly believe in nurturing a students curiosity, especially so early on in the learning journey — it will serve them well for the rest of their career.

The point I am trying to make here is that when you gain knowledge in a field that others outside your domain don’t yet possess; you cannot assume they will understand you, nor should you expect them to.

Instead, why not put yourself in their position and ask “What do they know? What don’t they know? How can I bridge this gap to a place where they understand what I’m saying?” By asking yourself these questions, you’ll be able to create more opportunities for clarity, understanding and inspiration, instead of easily succumbing to the Curse of Knowledge.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a teacher, a senior student, an employee or an employer. Anyone can do this — even though it may take more time in the long run, I believe it is well worth the effort.