What is the Curse of Knowledge?

When under the Curse of Knowledge, we assume people know more about a topic than they actually do. We are especially susceptible to the Curse once we gain expert level knowledge of a subject. It makes it difficult to take someone else’s perspective and to think like a novice.

Example: In 1990, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student performed an experiment that perfectly illustrates the Curse of Knowledge. In it, Newton had participants guess what percentage of people would be able to guess a song the participant was tapping with their finger on a tabletop. On average, they predicted that half of the people would be able to guess the song correctly. When the experiment played out, only 2.5% of the listeners correctly identified the song. 120 well-known songs were played throughout the experiment. This stark contrast illustrates how having the knowledge of the song makes it challenging to take the perspective of someone without that knowledge. Truly a curse. Watch the 1-minute clip below to see how it unfolded.  


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Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge During Innovation

One trick for battling the Curse of Knowledge is through Assumption Busting. What it does is compile everything you assume to be true about something, and then bust all of those assumptions by asking you to think, "What is that isn't the case?" Let’s take winter jackets as an example. The thought of winter jackets leads to various assumptions, such as:

  1. They keep you warm.
  2. They keep you dry from the snow.
  3. They are thick and puffy.
  4. They are only useful in the winter.
  5. You wear them outside.

Using the assumptions above, let’s imagine what would happen if they were not true. What ideas can we come up with?

  1. Jackets so breathable that they aren’t warm, but keep their warmth appeal. This way people in warmer climates can enjoy wearing winter jackets too.
  2. A jacket that absorbs moisture when the interior exceeds a specific temperature, allowing the body to cool off.
  3. A paper-thin jacket made of a technical material that still preserves body warmth.
  4. A breakaway jacket with a detachable outer shell, yielding a cool t-shirt for summer enjoyment.
  5. Indoor winter jackets that have an on/off cooling factor so you can wear your stylish jacket indoors and won’t overheat.

Not every idea will be a showstopper, but it activates a new mindset of creativity. You can even take it one step further by performing a Forness® response for each idea. This technique can catapult seemingly bland ideas into breakthrough innovations by thwarting the assumption we make about them. Forgetting what you know isn’t the worst thing when it comes to the Curse of Knowledge.

For a complete reference to the Cognitive Biases that interfere with innovation, read Outsmart Your Instincts: How the Behavioral InnovationTMApproach Drives Your Company Forward.

What Cognitive Bias Are You?

Take the eight-question quiz to uncover the Cognitive Bias most affecting your ability to innovate. Don't worry, we also provide you with ways to battle each Bias. 

Tyler Thompson

Tyler Thompson is a Creative Process Designer and Facilitator at Ideas To Go, an innovation agency that works with Fortune 500 companies in ideation and concept development to incorporate the voice of the consumer.