curse of knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge

The Curse of Knowledge

Everybody is stupid except me.” – Homer Simpson

Next time you’re around a group of friends, try this experiment: Tap your finger on a table to the rhythm of a very simple, well known song like Happy Birthday. Before you do so, try to predict how long it will take for your friends to guess which song you’re tapping.

It will almost certainly take your friends far longer to guess than you would have imagined. If you opt to have someone else perform this task instead you’ll get to sit back and watch in amusement as they furrow their brow in frustration and tap their fingers harder and harder on the table with each repeat of the song.

It’s kind of like watching someone try to communicate in a foreign language by repeating the same phrase in English increasingly loudly and slowly

This is called The Curse of Knowledge. Essentially, once one learns something, it is impossible to unlearn it and one will be forever biased with an inability to fully comprehend that the person one is trying to communicate with doesn’t also understand.

In the case of the person tapping out a song, that individual is projecting what he knows onto the other person and assuming that their state of mind and perception of the situation is comparable to his.

A group of researchers named Galinsky, Magee, Inesi and Gruenfeld; in a paper titled Running Head: Power and Perspectives Not Taken, have established that there is an important variable when it comes to the effects of the curse of knowledge: Power.

Power in this case is not limited to extreme power like Libya’s Gaddafi giving rambling speeches about martydom from the confines of a protected bunker.

They define power as “The capacity to influence others, with power emerging from control over resources and the ability to administer rewards and punishments.” That’s a pretty broad definition. In fact, almost everyone fits into it at some point: Parents, friends, coworkers, bosses and yes, coaches and personal trainers.

What did the researchers find out about the relation between power and the curse of knowledge? Through four separate experiments they established that people with higher levels of self-perceived power (the subjects had been “primed” to feel powerful or not):

  • Had a lower inclination to adopt another person’s visual perspective
  • Were less likely to take into account that others did not possess their privileged knowledge and anchored too heavily on their own vantage point
  • Were less accurate in determining the emotional expressions of others, suggesting a power-induced impediment to empathy

The first experiment was designed to measure the effect of power on the tendency to adopt another person’s visual perspective, an important dimension in understanding others beliefs and intentions (Baron-Cohen, 1995).

They explain their experiment, “We used a procedure created by Hass (1984) in which participants are asked to draw an “E” on their foreheads. One way to complete the task is to draw an “E” as though the self is reading it, which leads to a backward and illegible “Ε” from the perspective of another person. The other way to approach the task is to draw the “Ε” as though another person is reading it, which leads to production of an “Ε” that is backward to the self.”

The experiment was controlled for handedness and the results showed that high-power participants were three times as likely as low-power participants to draw a self-oriented “E.” The participants had also each written an essay prior to the study which was coded by a psychologist. The more participants described possessing in their essays, the more likely they were to draw a self-focused “E.”

The researchers concluded: “Consistent with our theorizing, [the act of] priming power led individuals to give less consideration to others’ perspectives when given an opportunity to spontaneously adopt another’s visual point of view.”

The next set of experiments was designed to determine whether power affects the tendency to take another person’s perspective when doing so is required for effective communication.

The researchers explain the basis of their second experiment, “Most messages can be interpreted in multiple ways, and effective communication requires taking the knowledge and perspectives of one’s audience into account. The same semantic content (e.g., “nice suit!”) can be received as a compliment or a thinly veiled insult, depending on knowledge of the speaker’s tastes and previous interactions. When message receivers have privileged knowledge about a speaker’s intentions, they often have difficulty recognizing and adjusting for the fact that other listeners do not share this privileged perspective (Keysar, 1994). They are cursed by their knowledge, inaccurately predicting that others see the world as they do…

After completing the power prime and a filler task, participants were given a scenario in which they and a colleague had gone to a fancy restaurant recommended by the colleague’s friend but had a particularly poor dining experience. The next day the colleague had sent an email to the friend stating only that: “About the restaurant, it was marvelous, just marvelous.”

Participants were asked to respond to the question, “How do you think the colleague’s friend will interpret the comment?” on a scale anchored at “very sarcastic” (1) and “very sincere” (6). There was no information in the email itself to suggest anything other than sincerity. However, if participants anchored on their privileged knowledge of the speaker’s intention then they would think that the friend would interpret the message as sarcastic in nature.”

In this experiment, high-power individuals thought that the message would be perceived as more sarcastic than did low-power participants. This supports the researcher’s prediction that “power leads individuals to anchor too heavily on their own vantage point, insufficiently adjusting to others perspectives.”

The third experiment was identical to this one, but the back-story was flipped so that the restaurant goers had been told to expect a horrible experience but had actually enjoyed themselves immensely. This eliminated any chance for high-power individuals to be biased towards sarcasm rather than the privileged information given to them.

The final experiment was designed to evaluate the effects of power on one’s ability to pay attention to and comprehend others emotional states. This is essentially empathy, which has been defined as “the ability to perceive accurately how another person is feeling” (Levenson & Ruef, 1992).

The participants were primed to perceive themselves as either high power or a control and given a series of tests in which they looked at 24 images of people’s faces that express happiness, fear, anger or sadness.

They were then graded on their ability to perceive the correct emotion behind the facial expression. Along with gender (women are typically better at empathy) power emerged as the primary variable affecting accuracy. High-power individuals were less capable of detecting emotion, “…suggesting an additional consequence of diminished perspective-taking: greater difficulty in experiencing empathy.

The paper’s discussion leads with this conclusion: “Across four experiments we found that power was associated with a reduced tendency to comprehend how others see the world, how others think about the world, and how others feel about the world.”

Now, consider how this phenomenon affects you. Certainly you have some degree of power over someone. You can likely administer at least token rewards and punishments or mete out resources, even if it’s just deciding who gets the good stapler or dessert before bedtime.

This puts you in a power position and almost certainly alters your perceptions of others, including your ability to understand how well they’re understanding what you’re saying.

If you’re reading this blog you’re probably involved in the fitness industry. Think for a moment of the power relationship one is placed in as a coach or trainer. Clients are being constantly given orders, “Lift this, pull that, run over there, stand like this!” and even rewards and punishments. “You can rest. You, too slow. Make with the burpees.”

Further, they’re being given instructions to do things which are inherently, to at least some extent,privileged information to the coach.

In this situation, the coach will have an impaired ability to perceive the feelings and understand the perceptions of those he is instructing and will be inaccurately assuming them to understand things simply because he does.

I see this now as a trainer in the civilian world and saw it on an even greater scale in the military conducting operations in which myself and a small group of colleagues would train a force from another country to do a job which was, to us, second nature.

Language was always a barrier and we’d be giving instructions in the host nation’s language at a kindergarten level of fluency to do things like drive boats at night through the ocean in tight formations, board other vessels and handle weapons in very specific ways.

All too often we’d carefully explain to a group how to perform a task like walk through the basics of boarding and searching another vessel and then watch them bumble off as if they hadn’t heard a word we’d said.

It was always easy to just throw our hands in the air and say, “these guys are really just too dumb to teach.” The reality of it though, is that (cultural differences aside) we simply weren’t communicating well enough and that we were significantly biased to misunderstand what and how well the trainees were perceiving our intentions

Next time you find yourself in a comparable situation like coaching a person who just doesn’t seem to get what you’re saying; forget about their shortfalls and consider that the sticking point may lie in your own perceptions. You and your client are seeing, thinking and comprehending in entirely different ways and in order to communicate effectively you’ll have to put greater effort into understanding the mindset of your client.

Just like the person tapping the song out harder on the table or saying the same phrase in English more slowly and loudly, you’re only increasing the frustration of both parties if you don’t question your biases.


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