23 October 2010

The Curse of Knowledge

A research was made where there would be 2 kind of roles: the tappers and the listeners. The tappers job was to tap on the table a common melody of a very known song (like happy birthday). The listeners would have to listen (duh) and name correctly which song was the tapper tapping. How many times do you think the listener guessed the right song? Don’t jump to the next paragraph, really think how many times would someone guess correctly if you tapped “happy birthday” on the table.

Over the course of the experiment, 120 songs were tapped out. Listeners guessed only 2.5 percent of the songs: 3 out of 120. But here's what made the result worthy: before the listeners guessed the name of the song, they asked the tappers to predict the odds that the listeners would guess correctly. They predicted that the odds were 50 percent.
The tappers got their message across 1 time in 40, but they thought they were getting their message across 1 time in 2. Why?

The answer is the Curse of Knowledge. When we know the name of the song, it’s very hard to act as you don’t know it and put yourself in the shoes of the listeners. When you are tapping, it’s almost impossible to not listen the song in your head. It becomes obvious which song it is, because you already know. Try it out, tap “happy birthday” on the table and listen to it, you hear the song while tapping.

The same thing happens in a miming game, how many times were you impressed by how people didn’t get your outstanding Mao Tse-Tung mime? It’s easy because you already know the answer. AIESEC people are the champions of the Curse of Knowledge, when they say to someone that they were MCVP OGX, they don’t realize that this is completely impossible to understand if you were not in the organization. Jargon is the Curse of Knowledge’s best friend.

The result of the Curse of Knowledge is people talking in abstractions, instead of concretely. A CEO suffering from the Curse of Knowledge talks about “increasing shareholder value” or “world class customer service”. The CEO is listening to the song in his head, “world class customer service” does ring a clear bell in his mind – unfortunately, to the people in customer service, that is too abstract, too high level for anyone to ACT upon it.

How to beat the Curse of Knowledge? Easy: being concrete. Use plain talk. If you want your employees to be better at customer service, what do you think would help most: a passionate talk by the CEO about “achieving world class customer service” or a story about a customer service person who gift wrapped a product, even though it was bought in a competitor’s store? Or a shop attendant who ironed a shirt for a client so he could go to a business meeting?

These were all stories (which in general are concrete by nature), but to be concrete you don’t necessarily need stories. Take when I was President of AIESEC Norway (my all time favorite phrase starter): we had a goal/vision/wish/whatever in our team that we wanted “one exchange happening every day” (I removed the “raised, matched or realized” from the phrase, because only AIESEC people would have a clear picture of what it is – the Curse of Knowledge). It is very concrete stuff, one exchange, every day, that is what we consider success. People can act accordingly to get to that. On the opposite “increase our performance” is too vague and abstract.

We had another one of those, it was “don’t finish our year on minus [in the budget]”, which helped us to cut costs wildly and to push to bring more money in every time there was a chance we would finish our term bellow zero. On the other hand, “to have sustainable financial results” doesn’t have the same impact.

The Curse of Knowledge appears on Made to Stick, an outstanding book about building messages that stick to people’s brains.

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