From Expert to Empath: 4 Tips to Break the Curse of Knowledge

Emma Allport, CSM
November 2, 2023

It's easy to assume others know what you know, right? In today's blog, we're going to discuss what the curse of knowledge is, why it's so common, and how to break this way of thinking to create more empathetic workflows and connections.


As a project manager, I see varying levels of knowledge within a team all the time. There is always a spectrum; some team members are experts while others may be complete novices when it comes to a certain concept. For experts, which may include you without you realizing it, let's talk about The Curse of Knowledge. I recently came across a video outlining the 1990 Stanford research study done on the topic that sparked my curiosity on how the curse of knowledge surfaces in the tech world.

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

To demonstrate it, I'm going to explain a scenario I learned through this video. Let's say I have you tap out a famous song like Happy Birthday. You can tap it out on your desk and it would go something like "Tap tap tap tap, tap tap." How many people do you think would know what you are tapping? How many people do you think would guess that song? Make a mental note of your answer.

The Curse of Knowledge. Have you been in a situation, where you… | by Ketut  Sulistyawati | Farmacare Crew | Medium
Image sourced from here.

This was the premise of the 1990 Stanford University study by Elizabeth Newton. She had participants tap out the Happy Birthday song and other famous songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner. When asked how many people they thought would guess the song correctly, the participants guessed about 50% of people would guess the song they were tapping, or 1 in 2 people. In reality, only 2.5% or 1 in 40 people guessed the song correctly.

So why? The tune of the song is obvious to the tapper because they can hear it in their mind while tapping out the song, but the other person can't hear it. In this scenario, the tapper has lost the ability to empathize with somebody who doesn't have the knowledge that they do.

The Takeaway

"Once you learn something, you kind of lose the memory of not knowing it, and you lose empathy for people who don't know it."

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How Does This Apply in the Tech Space?

There are varying levels of knowledge when it comes to technology, especially in the workplace. For those of us who consider ourselves "tech-savvy" it may be unfathomable to understand how someone could not know:

  1. What "right click" means
  2. How to paste with the keyboard shortcut "ctrl v"
  3. How to save a document as a PDF

This is a short list of knowledge I've taken for granted and have assumed everyone knows. The curse of knowledge comes into play when you don't even consider that someone may not know something. This ties in with the age-old advice: "assume nothing."
Image sourced from here.

4 Tips to Break the Curse of Knowledge

So what can you do when you're trying to avoid the curse of knowledge? Here's four practical tips on how to break the curse of knowledge when teaching a new skill, new piece of technology, or simply working together with others.

1. Ask for a Demo / Put the Tool in Their Hands

When trying to teach someone to dice an onion, you can show them your amazing knife skills, but you can only know how well they are absorbing the information if you watch them try to cut up the onion while holding the knife themselves. Whenever possible, let the learner "drive" with the software, technology, app etc. Have them share their screen and use their mouse. When you observe their keyboard strokes, mouse movements, and navigation habits, you'll pick up on where they need help or be able to recommend best practices you use that they don't seem to know.

2. Promote Learner to Teacher

After you finish explaining a concept, process, or new tool, ask the learner to put on their teacher hat and pretend to teach the concept back to you, or better yet to another learner. When someone is forced to explain a new concept it's much easier to identify parts they don't understand when they stumble over how to explain certain aspects. If a person can succinctly explain a concept to someone else, this demonstrates they have a solid understanding of the topic.

3. Try Something Brand New, Outside Your Comfort Zone

I recently went fly fishing in Colorado, and it was completely new to me. By the end of the 5-hour float trip, I was finally getting the hang of it. I thought back to earlier that same morning during the brief 30 min intro lesson our guide gave us and realized how far I'd come in just 5 hours: that morning I had no idea what "mend" "strip" or "set" meant and by the end of the day I'd caught 5 fish from mending my line, stripping the line, and setting the hook. Engaging in completely new activities helps one empathize with what others feel when they are beginners in an area where you may be an expert. Keeping these experiences top of mind when engaging with others ignites empathy and reminds you of the vulnerable state one feels when out of one's comfort zone.

4. Use Storytelling to Help Visualize and Simplify

Whenever possible, share real-world examples and use stories that illustrate the practical applications of the technology or concept. Stories can engage and humanize complex ideas and often make remembering the "how" a lot easier. The best is when you can recall what learning the new tool or concept did for you, how it saved you time or made a process easier for you. Sharing life before and after the "knowledge" gained can be one of the best ways to get your learner onboard and reminds them you weren't always the expert; you were new at one time too.

Bridge the Gap in Knowledge Sharing

It can feel inefficient when you have to break a topic down all the way to the basics, but it can be humbling to recall a time in your life when you weren't the expert, and someone took the time to help you grow to where you are today. The first step is to keep an awareness of the phenomena of the "curse of knowledge." It's a real thing and may make it more difficult for you to empathize or even realize when someone doesn't possess the knowledge you have.

Making an intentional effort to observe and identify gaps in knowledge can bridge the gap between you, the expert and those who are eager to learn. By using these practical tips, we can collectively advance tech knowledge and empower others in their own discovery.

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