The Curse Of Knowledge

Have you ever played a game of charades at Christmas and been frustrated by your team-mates’ inability to guess even the simplest of your acting efforts? Have you ever tried showing somebody how to perform a simple task in Word and been wound up by the fact that they just can’t seem to grasp it, no matter how simply you explain it?

Congratulations; you’ve just been visited by The Curse of Knowledge.

The Curse of Knowledge is a cognitive bias inherent in all human beings which, in a nutshell, means the more familiar you are with something, the harder it is to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who isn’t familiar with that thing.

The term was first coined in 1989 Journal of Political Economy article by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. In 1990 an experiment by a Stanford graduate student, Elizabeth Newton illustrated the curse of knowledge by the results of a simple task. A group of subjects were asked to tap a well-known song with their fingers and to predict how many of the group would guess correctly. It was found that the tapper would always overestimate the number of correct guesses, by a very large margin. This simple experiment has far-reaching ramifications; in effect, it means that it is almost impossible for somebody with knowledge of a thing to accurately predict the actions or outcomes of somebody who does not have the same knowledge.

As digital marketers and web developers the Curse of Knowledge has huge implications for the way we design and develop. We design and plan based on our expected or desired outcomes, but everything we do is biased by the fact that we already know what the desired outcome is. It is almost impossible for us to predict how our users and customers will react because we cannot “un-know” this knowledge and we will always suffer from this cognitive bias. Users will behave in unpredictable ways because they don’t know what you know, there will be things they don’t understand that seem very obvious to you.

What can we do to combat this natural prejudice? Trying to think like a new user or customer is impossible; your brain won’t allow you to. No matter how hard you try, you cannot un-know what you know, and it will always, always, taint your judgement. The only way to counter this effectively is with extensive user testing. Make no assumptions and no predictions. Build, test, feedback, iterate. If you can afford the services of a professional user-testing organisation, you may find this a worthwhile expense, otherwise you can perform smaller scale testing with your own customers, perhaps through the use of site surveys and session recordings – although bear in mind that your customers may suffer from the same biases as you do, ideally your test subjects should have as little exposure to your testing environment as possible. The most important thing is not to “go with your gut”, because your gut is cursed.

Look out for my next post where we’ll be exploring some common User Testing techniques like the 5 Second Test and Blur Testing