When seeking advice, we often look to successful industry leaders and experts. Of course, if you are getting advice, you want it to be from someone who has a wealth of experience and understanding. However, before you take any, you need to be aware of the curse of knowledge.

What is the curse of knowledge?

The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias in which a person is so familiar with an industry or topic that they assume everyone else is as well. They forget that someone else may not know what they're talking about or why it is important.

The Columbus Egg Problem

This bias can be illustrated with a story known as Columbus' egg problem, which is detailed in La Historia del Mondo Nuouo or The History of the New World. Rumor has it that when Columbus returned to Spain, believing he discovered the New World, he visited the royal court for a feast in his honor.

While seated at dinner, a few guests remarked that there were many brilliant people in Spain. Therefore, someone else would have discovered the New World if Columbus had not.

In response, Columbus ordered a boiled egg for each person. When they arrived, he told everyone to balance the egg on the small tip. When they couldn't figure it out, everyone quickly gave up. Columbus then demonstrated how to do it by pushing the egg with the small tip down, which caused it to balance. "When you know the solution, everything is easy," he said.

Listeners and Tappers Experiment

In a 1990 experiment, Stanford graduate Elizabeth Newton demonstrated how the curse of knowledge affects our perception of reality. In the experiment, participants were paired up. One was a "listener" and the other was a "tapper".

The tapper had to think of a song and tap it out with their hands. The listener had to identify the song based on the other person's tapping. When asked how likely it was that the listener would guess correctly, the tappers estimated it would be right 50 percent of the time. In reality, it was guessed correctly 2.5 percent. Out of 120 songs, only three were guessed correctly by the listener.

The tappers suffered from the curse of knowledge. In their head, the song seemed obvious, but for listeners, it was not. They overestimated what the other person understood.

What You Need To Know To Get and Give The Best Advice

When people, especially thought leaders and experts give advice, the context and necessary experience may seem absolutely obvious to them. For those receiving the advice, it is a lot more complicated and requires significantly more information to not only to understand but to execute on it.

When someone says you should start a podcast, a blog, or a business, to them the steps are clear. They know the pitfalls and shortcuts. For you, it is a terrifying world to discover and learn.

This should give you some hesitation when accepting advice. You should also ask these key questions to evaluate the advice that you receive:

  1. What are the pitfalls of pursuing this course of action?
  2. What do you wish you knew, before you went down this route?
  3. Knowing what you know now, what if anything would be a more effective (cheaper, faster, easier, etc.) strategy?
  4. What don't I know that would accelerate this process?
  5. What skills will I need to develop to follow through?

When you take advice, make sure to ask questions to ensure that you are not missing critical information. If you are giving advice, you need to be aware of your own biases and see which of the above questions you need to answer for others.

If you don't know or understand something, it's okay. Don't pretend like you do. It won't help you and it won't help the person giving the advice. The curse of knowledge impairs our ability to communicate in a way that others understand. Hopefully, awareness of the issue will help you give and get better advice.

Published on: Sep 29, 2017
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