The Curse of Knowledge

Yes, that’s right, you have read the header correctly.

Because if you know something, you can’t appreciate what it’s like not to know it.

And this is when better-informed people encounter problems thinking about problems from the perspective of their less-informed peers.

Reversing knowledge is as impossible as un-ringing a bell, because we can’t unlearn what we already know.

Ok, we do tend to forget what we want to remember, but we cannot actively make ourselves forget what we want to forget.

Our knowledge has “cursed” us and it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, as we can’t readily re-create our listener’s state of mind.

knowledge vs wisdomFor example: Consider a lawyer who spends his life reading and writing legal documents, and talking to lawyers, all day every day.  When you ask this lawyer about tort reform,  you’re most likely to get an explanation that would confuse you further.

Why is that?

Because this person knows too much to answer your question in a language that you would understand.

Now, I am not saying that I know too much (on the contrary, whenever I read I am constantly astounded about how little I knew); nevertheless, I often get the impression, when I talk to people about personal finance and how they can achieve long-term financial freedom, that I “lose them” along the way.

Could it be that I suffer from the Curse of Knowledge, resulting that I speak gibberish to people who have a different level of knowledge?

Psychologists have found that the more people think they know about a topic, the more likely they are to claim that totally made-up facts are true.

In a study, 100 people were given a general knowledge quiz about personal finance.  They were also shown a list of terms which were mostly real.  Mostly, but not all of them.  In fact, three terms were made up: “pre-rated stocks”, “fixed-rate deduction”, and “annualized credit”.

People who thought they were financial experts were more likely to claim that they knew all about these three totally bogus terms.

Ms Stav Atir, the study’s first author, explained:

“The more people believed they knew about finances in general, the more likely they were to overclaim knowledge of the fictitious financial terms.  The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography.  For instance, people’s assessment of how much they know about a particular biological term will depend in part on how much they think they know about biology in general.”

In spite of the fact that they were warned that some of the terms were made up, people who thought that they were experts still over-estimated their knowledge.

Biology “experts”, for example, claimed to know what “meta-toxins” are and what “bio-sexual” means, despite both terms having been invented for the research.

Ms Atir also said that a little knowledge could really be a dangerous thing:

“Our work suggests that the seemingly straightforward task of judging one’s knowledge may not be so simple, particularly for individuals who believe they have a relatively high level of knowledge to begin with.”

There are, in fact, only two ways to beat the Curse of Knowledge reliably.

The first is not to learn anything—thought this not really an option I’d like to pursue—the second is to take ideas and transform them by simplifying them.

I do this by starting at the basics; determining what my “audience” knows, because I no longer assume that they speak my language or that they have my perspective.  And if my aim is explanation, I try not to impress them with big words and details that could be confusing.

But now, over to you: Do let me know (in the comments box) whether I suffer from the Curse of Knowledge (because my posts are gibberish to you), or am on a good path to beat the Curse of Knowledge.

In the meantime, I eagerly await research that assuming knowing nothing can turn one into an expert.


Incidentally, what’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.


  1. Hi Andy,

    Many people tend to only like to be with people who are less knowledgeable than them, or at least they thought they are more knowledgeable than them.

    Therefore, they will always think that they are more knowledgeable and eventually developed a sense of resistance to “creativity and diverse good opinions.”

    Age and experiences very often also “cousins of of the curse of knowledge.” Therefore I always remind myself never ever to fall into this trap.

    • Hi Rolf,

      Good approach of yours.

      Whenever I read a good book or blog it reminds me off how little I actually know and how perceived knowledge can hamper ones curiosity. As so often in life staying humble is a good character trait.

  2. Hi Andy

    I am selective to know what are essential financial knowledge and what are “good to know”. I realised I can’t know everything when I am learning more and more about it. It could be biased based on individual research. That is why ETF is good.

    You may be interested to read this :

    To me, being intelligent is knowing how to win a battle. Being wise is know which battle to engage to reach your objectives.

    • Hi Frugal Daddy,

      Wow, you are way ahead. Acknowledging that you are biased is essential, as we are all dumb, but only the smart ones learn from it.

      Often it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong.

      I stand corrected after checking out the link. So wisdom is knowing that only the Zima cherry tomatoes go well in a fruit salad. haha Have you tried it yet? Still sounds a bit strange to me, because I am a sweet guy.

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