The Curse of Knowledge

Have you ever been in a position in which you are trying to teach someone a concept or an idea and they just don’t seem to get it?

It’s that position where you are stuck explaining something over and over in more ways than one, but you can’t seem to get it across even though you are sure what you are saying makes sense.

What could be to blame is the curse of knowledge.

It’s when you are simply unable to understand why someone doesn’t understand.


Overestimating Someone’s Understanding

The curse of knowledge was found by Elizabeth Newton after conducting an experiment in which she asked participants to tap the melody of a couple of songs to a listener.

Before the experiment took place, the tappers were asked and all overestimated the amount of songs they believed the listeners would guess correctly.

They had the feeling that someone else would understand it as easily as them because they are clouded with not being able to be in the position of not knowing and having to piece it together themselves.

Looking at it in a particular way, you are essentially cursed repeatedly ignoring what might be the important piece of explanation missing, assuming they have already made it that far.

It’s a roadblock that is visible on both sides, but hard to make a compromise of because even if you are aware that this is happening, you have to backtrack to find the missing piece of information that is blocking the connection.

You can blame it on the fact that once there is something you understand, you presume it to be obvious for everyone. It becomes impossible as time goes on, to backtrack to before you knew what you now know, preventing you from putting yourself in others shoes.


The Teacher Struggle

When it comes to teaching, this problem comes into play quite often.

If someone completely understands something through to it’s full extent, it can be hard for them to teach it simply because they run into the problem of not being able to relapse to when they didn’t understand.

You try and teach something, but there is just that roadblock that you and the student keep running into. The student tries asking questions that will get them closer to the answer. The teacher tries phrasing it in a different way until it’s understood.

Eventually this would play out to success and make sense to the student. But the barrier that exists is because of the curse of knowledge.

What hearing about this made me think of, is back when I was a student in any grade growing up because this happened quite often. I’m sitting next to someone, the teacher is up by the board teaching whatever it may be, algebra, statistics, chemistry, but a student next to me runs into the problem of not understanding what the teacher is is trying to teach.

They might ask a question, but the teacher will most of the time rephrase with maybe a few different words here and there. The student still doesn’t understand.

But me, having just learned this new concept, am still aware of the path that I took in my mind to understanding it. I have a much better idea of what it is they aren’t understanding.

I then would explain it to my classmate and nine times out of ten, I’ve correctly identified what it is they were struggling with understanding.

It’s something the teachers can’t see or understand themselves because to them it makes perfect sense, to others possibly not so much. Pinpointing the cut off is hard to someone that hasn’t encountered that lack of insight in a long time.


Fixing The Curse

Obviously this can cause a lot of problems when trying to explain something. Even if it just means you have to keep trying to explain something in more ways than one.

It can be tedious and quite frankly, annoying when you try and help someone understand something that, to you, seems incredibly clear.

But you have to accept that its not necessarily their fault anymore, it could be yours.

You have to be willing to follow the infrequently taken road and explain it to them like they are a five year old. Start figuring out whatever it is you are talking about, what parts of it they are already familiar with.

It’s noteworthy to take into account that the curse of knowledge might come up again and again, giving you a better idea of how to better handle the situation as it appears.

Remember, they aren’t dumb or stupid, they just might be missing that one link in understanding that they need you to put into place.

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