Undoing the curse of knowledge

A three-year-old walks into the room. You open a box of M&M’s in front of her. To the toddler’s surprise, the box of M&M’s is full of pencils.

You then pack the pencils back into the box. Now you ask the child, “If another person walks into the room, what would they think is inside this box?”. The child replies, “Pencils”.

As this experiment shows, three-year-old human brains suffer from the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge states that when we know something, it distorts our mind so that we are unable to remember what it is like to not know it. Once a toddler knows that a box of M&M’s has pencils, they are unable to see how other toddlers don’t necessarily know that.

As we grow up, we learn to overcome this tendency. But like many childhood tendencies, the curse of knowledge leaves an indelible impression on our minds. Knowing something cripples our ability to empathize with somebody who doesn’t know that it. In the process, it makes us bad teachers, writers, managers and joke tellers.

The most reliable way to undo the curse of knowledge is to seek external feedback. That is why public speakers rehearse their talks, writers hire editors and teachers ought to pay careful attention to the expressions on their students’ faces.

The curse of knowledge is perverse. The better we know something, the less capable we become of explaining it to other people. The key to overcome this curse is to empathize and listen to one’s audience.

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