The Curse of Knowledge

A type of cognitive bias, the curse of knowledge is essentially characterised by omitting certain information when interacting with another because you assume that what you know will be equally known by the other person.

Once you know how to do something and become quite knowledgeable or good at it, it is difficult to reverse your schema and label or define all of the necessary steps it took to develop it yourself. We tend to forget parts – and those parts might be crucial in a student developing an understanding of the overall concept or skill. I talk about this strategy of articulating the reversal of your schema here in designing an sequence of learning.

The bias was originally discussed in this paper by Camerer, Loewenstein & Weber in relation to Economics. Elizabeth Newton then produced more evidence of its existence:

‘Newton asked college students to participate in an experiment in one of two roles: “tappers” and “listeners.” Tappers received a list of 25 well-known songs and were asked to tap out the rhythm of one song. Listeners tried to guess the song from the taps. The tappers reported that they could clearly “hear” the lyrics and complete musical accompaniment as they banged away. When they were asked to predict how many songs listeners would guess, they predicted 50 percent. However, listeners heard only a series of seemingly disconnected taps. Indeed, of all the songs tapped out, listeners correctly guessed only 3 percent.’ From here

The ‘curse’ most certainly affects most contexts we find ourselves in that involve the transmission of information, but it is particularly prevalent in education settings. As such, it has large implications for learning design, and very much emphasises the importance of incrementally building a student’s understanding of a concept. When we skip steps in developing a schema for a topic or idea, we open the opportunity for learning gaps to form, and this has an exponentially deleterious effect on future learning.

A way to avoid the curse then is to write down what the outcome of the learning is, and then work backwards articulating all of the knowledge that is needed to satisfy it. This will lead to the creation of sub-outcomes, and what knowledge is needed for their achievement can also be written down. Making this a visual thing, or mind mapping the course is an effective approach to do this as it forces you to make the connections between the knowledge you are going to teach. Such an approach will almost inevitably make you realise that you had forgotten something that needs to be mentioned or taught. An example of such a map is below. When I began to add the elements I knew were important to achieving the course learning outcomes, I began to draw lines to certain knowledge – this allowed me to then consider how I would draw attention to the connections in a lecture. I discuss the pedagogy behind creating a visual map of your curriculum here.

Nickerson extends the awareness of the Curse of KNowledge here.

The Curse of Knowledge is very much real, and like all curses, should be avoided. In this post I discuss the some of teh manifestations of the curse, and explain how to avoid them.


Newton, L. (1990). Overconfidence in the communication of intent: Heard and unheard melodies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Stanford. CA: Stanford University.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at The University of Adelaide. I’m on Twitter too

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