Career Network for student Scientists and Postdocs at Yale

Creating a platform for discussion of scientific careers

Communicating Effectively Despite the Curse of Knowledge

This week’s blog post features guest blogger and CNSPY member, Dianna Bartel. Here, she discusses how to effectively communicate our thoughts and ideas when we suffer from the Curse of Knowledge, a phenomenon that occurs when one person is privy to information that the other person is unaware of. Here’s Dianna:


As simple as communication seems, much of what we try to get across to others – as well as what others try to tell us – gets misunderstood. As we’ve read in the last two blogs, our non-verbal signals speak volumes. So how do we turn up the volume with the words we use?

Consider the word itself, communicate – this stems from the Latin verb communicare, meaning to share. In essence we are seeking to communicate with our audience, not to our audience, because getting our message across requires a joint effort with our listeners, who need to assimilate our words into some kind of meaningful context. But with some preparation and attention, we can help entice and encourage our listeners to take interest in what we have to say. And it largely boils down to one crucial step:

Know Your Audience.

This is the crux of communicating well. Regardless of the situation, whether it’s a job interview or an outreach demonstration at a grade school, we are trying to gauge what our listeners already know. This is more difficult than it sounds because we suffer from the Curse of Knowledge – a term first coined by economists to explain why people are not as shrewd in bargaining as they could be when they know information that the other party does not.

This conundrum has also been illustrated with the classic example of a simple two-person game, where one person was the tapper and the other was the listener. The tapper tapped the rhythm to a well-known song, like “Happy Birthday,” on the table while the listener tried to guess the song. After 120 songs were tapped, listeners only had a success rate of 2.5%. Yet the tappers predicted their success would be 50%. So while tappers only got their message across once in every 40 tries, they expected to get it across in one out of every two tries. Why?

While the tappers tap, it is impossible for them not to hear the tune playing along to their taps. The listeners, on the other hand, only hear a kind of bizarre code without the background or context to decipher it. The problem is once we know something, such as the melody of a song, it is exceedingly difficult to imagine not knowing it. And the more we know about a subject, the harder it can become to communicate about it to others.

This Curse of Knowledge is like a mental blind spot. We fail to even notice the Curse because the Curse prevents us from noticing it!  So how can we see what we are blinded to? We can start by trying to imagine or remember where our audience is coming from. A bit of reflection should quickly reveal a specific pitfall that we are all at least vaguely aware of: the use of terminology, scientific verbiage, and abbreviations. Every profession and pastime develops its own lingo out of sheer convenience. The challenge is that, as we become more proficient in a field, we come to use these catchwords automatically, and we forget that our audience may not know this dialect. We can remove a surprising amount of jargon without insulting our audience or dumbing down the science. For example, we are not talking down to our audience by replacing “murine model” with “rats and mice,” nor is it any less scientific.

Yet trying to put ourselves in others’ shoes still does not make us any better in figuring out what they know. A better way to glimpse beyond the Curse is to get feedback from the world of our audience. Explaining our work to anyone outside our field can help us see around our mental blinders. Or as my mentor would say, “you know you’re ready when you can explain your work to your grandmother.” This was his exact advice while I was practicing my first research talk and desperately trying to prepare for any question a diverse audience might throw my way.

I initially thought this suggestion was, well, silly but I tried it anyway. My first attempt to describe my studies resulted in a nodding of my grandmother’s head coupled with the obligatory “hmmm.” It only took about a minute and a half to alienate my audience.  I felt like a tapper who couldn’t understand why my listener could not hear “Happy Birthday.”

Fortunately, my grandmother really was interested to know what I did and put forth quite a bit of effort to figure this out. She was not afraid to ask me all the ‘whats’ and ‘whys’ of what I was trying to tell her. Not surprisingly, so much of my coded message was easier for my grandmother to decipher when I used more direct and concrete language… like the more straightforward idea (listed second) compared to my more cryptic first attempt:

First Attempt:  “My studies focus on the central glial responses following peripheral nerve injury.”

Second Attempt:  “Basically, I study how certain cells in the brain respond after a nerve is injured in the body.”

I assumed that the meaning of the words central and peripheral were obvious; these words are commonplace after all. But without any context those words were unconnected from anything else I said. It just took a few questions for me to realize some of the assumptions I had made. This is why it is useful to practice with someone who is willing to put some effort to listening to us and is not afraid to ask seemingly stupid questions. Chances are good that someone in our target audience will have similar questions but will be too uncomfortable to ask.

Bare in mind that we are all continually bombarded by information day after day: information that we constantly need to sort out, put into context, and derive meaning from. We are ultimately asking our audience to put some brainpower into assimilating what we have to say.

In order to communicate, we must be understood.

So we are tasked with making our complex ideas easier to understand, rather than simply spewing out information regardless of who may be listening.

As we seek to communicate clearly, we may also find a bit of moral advice in the imperative to overcome the Curse of Knowledge: trying to lift ourselves out of our narrow mindsets and find out how other people think and feel. As Stephen Pinker pointed out, this may not make us better people in all walks of life, but it will be a source of continued kindness to our listeners.


** Let us know what else you think about effective communication and the Curse of Knowledge! **

Share your thoughts below by clicking the “Leave a Reply” link or by clicking the chat bubble in the top right of the post.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Great advice, thanks for communicating it with us!

  2. And thank YOU for listening!

  3. School of Communications and Business

    November 10, 2016 at 2:25 am

    hehe i really love your article and actually very useful for a lot of people like me, thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.