The Curse of Knowledge

Nov. 15, 2019

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias we all face. It is common in education and workplaces regardless of the industry.

A group of people are arranging a set of wooden cubes on a table.

This 2019, I had the opportunity to present at three different events: UX@UA Meetup, HighEdWeb 2019 Conference, and the University of Arizona IT Summit. My main topic was about the Curse of Knowledge. This following article is an excerpt from my presentation.

Let's Play a Game!

Click the play button to listen to a rhythm of a song being tapped with drumsticks. Can you guess the name of the song? It is very easy, I promise!

Audio file

Did you take a guess? What song was this? Did you get the answer on the first try? Second try? 

If you are ready to find out, find the answer at the bottom of the article.

Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses

So, how did you do? Well, now that you know, it is impossible to "unknow" it. Every time you listen to it, you know right away what song is being played. 

But what makes it difficult to guess the song? Maybe it's a multi-generational difference or that not everybody is familiar with the song. Perhaps, it's a cultural difference or people just have different tastes in music genres and have never heard of the song.

What is the Curse of Knowledge

According to a UserTesting blog called The Curse of Knowledge: How It Impacts You, and What to Do About It, "The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand."

This means that you can't "unknow" or "unlearn" what you know. Once you become an expert on certain subjects, it becomes much harder to explain the basics to someone without that same knowledge.

In the game we played earlier, as the tapper, I assumed that the song would be too obvious. I could hear the melody of the song clearly in my head. However, to listeners, these are just a series of disconnected taps and rhythms.

In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, conducted the Tappers and Listeners study to illustrate the Curse of Knowledge. Newton assigned each participant to one of two roles: tapper or listener. The tappers were asked to pick popular songs such as Happy Birthday and to tap out the rhythm, while the listeners had to guess the song. The result of the experiment was that out of 120 songs, only 3 were guessed correctly by the listeners.

How It Affects Us

We all strive to be experts in our chosen careers. We continuously learn and improve our skillsets. As humans, we are naturally curious and we crave to fill our knowledge gaps. With the rapid growth in technology, we consume knowledge and information now more than ever. This is one of the reasons why the Curse of Knowledge is common in education and workplaces regardless of the industry. However, as we learn and become experts, we tend to form blindspots and it becomes harder to "unlearn" and look at other people's perspectives. This Curse of Knowledge can cause communication gaps and empathy gaps which can become a barrier to productivity, innovation, and career growth.

Communication Gaps

People in the workplace have different backgrounds, experiences, talents, and skillsets. To give you an example, our Digital Learning team has around 40 members. We have subteams and various roles that function differently. Each subteam has its own service and expertise that they offer. But as an organization, we have one goal and that is to provide support to Arizona Online courses. One of the biggest challenges with cross-functional teams is communication since each one of us has our own specialized terms and language that we are comfortable within our own domains. This is called jargon. When people use jargon, it makes it much harder to get people on the same page.

Here are some examples of jargon used by our teams.

Instructional Designer terms: HLC, blended learning, flipped classrooms, SCORM, Bloom's Taxonomy, pedagogy, andragogy, MOOCs

Videographer terms: aspect ratio, b-roll, frame rate, lower third, resolution, wide-angle

Visual Designer terms: typography, kerning, ascender/descender, vector, raster, mockups, logo lockups

Web developer terms: CMS, Drupal, HTML, CSS, JS, UX, UI, responsive design, semantic markup, information architecture, API, GIT

In meetings, how often do you hear jargon, acronyms, and buzz words? Have you been to meetings where you have no idea what the meeting is all about? In your next meeting, try to avoid jargon. Simply use plain language, and notice the difference that it makes.

Often times, jargon and technical terms are inevitable. To help us communicate effectively and overcome communication gaps, we do brown bags, incubators, and cross-training. We are currently working on setting up a team glossary page where we can list all the terms that are being used in the office. We will then define each word as a team. The goal is that eventually, these words are not only terms for each subteam, but they become a part of the entire organization's vocabulary. 

Empathy Gaps

The Curse of Knowledge bias also shows itself in websites, products, and services. As a web developer, one of the challenges in my role is designing usable websites. How can we design websites that are user-friendly? How can we put ourselves in the user's shoes? How do we consider the needs of our first-time users? These are only a few of the questions we ask when designing with a human-centered approach.

Design thinking strategies and UX tools such as usability testing, persona maps, and empathy maps are always useful in helping us gather feedback and develop empathy for our users.


The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias we all face, regardless of our background. People have varied expertise, unique circumstances, and are at different points in their careers. It is everywhere around us and it affects our daily lives. By no means, I am saying that we need to stop advancing and consuming knowledge. We need to share and distribute the knowledge and take the time to understand one another. Let's create communities and workplace environments with inclusivity and mindfulness.

Knowledge is the key to innovation, but if not used wisely it can become a curse. If you are beginner in your career, think of that as an advantage because you can offer fresh perspectives. If you are someone who is well experienced, reach out to people and collaborate. You never know who can give you fresh insights about a project you're working on.

What are some examples of the Curse of Knowledge in traditional face to face classes?

What are some examples of the Curse of Knowledge in online and asynchronous classes?

*Answer: Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns N' Roses