The curse of knowledge – a thought experiment

You have invited a dear friend of yours, a modern day hunter-gatherer, to your house. Say you are fluent in the language of her tribe.

You live next to a construction site, and as you are catching up, a clattering sledgehammer interrupts your conversation. Your friend is startled. She asks you what those noises are about.

“Oh that! That is just a construction site nearby.”

“What is construction?”

“Construction is when you build something new”.

“What is building?”

“Building is the act of creating structures that provide shelter. Like caves, or huts made from mud and straw.”

“Oh okay. What are they building?”

“They are building a school”.

“What is a school?”

You spend the rest of the evening in this manner. If the conversation were about gathering wild berries or hunting antelope on foot, it would have transpired in the opposite direction.

It is startling to realize how much of our language depends on being familiar with a particular context. It is startling precisely because the curse of knowledge makes us take this contextual knowledge for granted.

The cure? Always close the feedback loop when you make presentations. Watch for signs of understanding and stop when you see puzzled looks. Engage with your audience and pepper them with questions.

Related reading: The Curse of Knowledge, Undoing the Curse of Knowledge

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