My Curse of Knowledge

Around the 1990’s, Elizabeth Newton, a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University designed a simple experiment to illustrate a powerful concept. She assigned people one of the two roles – ‘Tapper’ or ‘Listener’. The Tappers were asked to pick a set of easy songs like ‘Happy Birthday’ or ‘Jingle Bells’ that they must tap on the table like a morse code. The Listeners had to guess the song correctly.

Now, just before the Tappers started tapping the song for the Listeners, Newton also asked them to predict the chance of the Listeners guessing their song correctly. All the Tappers were confident. They predicted 50%.

And guess what happened?

This experiment was done with thousands of people across the world and with almost 120 songs. Only 2.5% of the songs were correctly gussed by the Listeners.

That’s it. 2.5%. The Tappers were frustrated. They were clear in their head and knew the tune of the song they were tapping. And for heck they could not figure out why the Listeners were not able to guess.

The reality was the Listeners had no clue most of the times. In a very powerful way, Newton illustrated the powerful concept of ‘The Curse of Knowledge’

‘We forget what it is to ‘Not Know’ something when we already know it’

What the leadership team means by ‘Unlocking Shareholder Value’ is perhaps only known to them. Or when a company’s vision statement says that ‘we are a humane company’ or ‘Most respected brand’ – it is very vague down the line.

The boss forgets how it feels to ‘not know’ about career growth for a junior team member. The teacher doesn’t get why her students are not able to catch the simple trick in her head for the maths problem. The dad forgets what it was like being a teenager after becoming a mature, wordly wise adult.

Last week the curse of knowledge hit me hard. I was to address two diverse sets of young people on storytelling and sales. The first one was to the final year BBA students of Christ College, Bangalore. The latter was to a bunch of young aspiring men and women from the remotest parts of India as part of a Josh Skills initiative.

In my mind. I was the expert, a senior pro with tons of experience. And that line of thought unknwingly kept throwing up very insipid and drab set of messages that did not connect. My deck was uninspiring and I was under pressure.

After a few days of mind paralysis, I chanced upon Elizabeth Newton experiment again. And then it flashed for me. I would have to beat my curse of knowledge in the only way it can be done.

With Stories. Stories, told with a point are a surest way to connect, engage, inspire in a concrete and memorable manner. Stories prevent you from being assertive or preachy. Stories help you not to go over the top and plead for audience’s attention. It made me rework my deck – rehearse it with a purpose and gain confidence.

I’ve never felt the kind of high after these two sessions got done.

But it’s not the end of the battle. The Curse of Knowledge will come back. Remember to dig hard and keep your stories ready to fight it.

Story Notes

The Curse of Knowledge on Wiki

The famous HBR article by the Heath Bros.

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