Bias number 36 is known as curse of knowledge. This is a cognitive bias that affects the depth of information shared and the attitude taken towards students, novices or audiences who are less familiar with the topic than the communicator.
How does it work? The information sharer makes assumptions about the level of knowledge available to their audience. Because the assumption is incorrect, they fail to communicate appropriate information to get their audience up to speed.
Where does this bias manifest? You’ll often find it in learning environments in which a teacher loses touch with the level of education his students hold. He proceeds to deliver inaccessible lectures to the majority of the people in the room.
You could see it as a failure in empathy.
This is typical in university settings where professors who eat, sleep and breathe their subject forget that they, too, were once novices. They pitch the learning so high that they discourage further uptake of their subject.
It was a university physics class at Northwestern in 1988 where I first experienced this bias in action. The Physics 101 professor scheduled to teach our entry-level class unfortunately had a heart attack weeks prior to the start of term. A professor accustomed to teaching third and fourth year PhD students stepped in. The results of the mid-term test were telling. 20 per cent of the students received a grade of 0, and the mean grade was 10 per cent.
At that point, the History of the Soviet Union course I was taking seemed more and more attractive. I changed to a History degree and never looked back. The curse of knowledge bias killed off my desire to pursue a career as a biomedical engineer.
Where does this bias show up in business? Consider the use of jargon and acronyms. These are handy communications tools to create shortcuts in speaking, encapsulating a complex idea in a series of letters, a short word or a phrase.
How do you help a graduate trainee in your industry or a person of a different profession grasp your thinking? Do you invite people to ask questions if and when they don’t understand? Do you make a conscious intent to use the jargon or acronym and then explain it? Or do you proceed as you would with your colleagues, expecting your audience to catch up?
To you, your knowledge may occur as dazzling. To others, it can come across as baffling, like you’re speaking a foreign language.
Is this the message you want to leave with people?
Other places where this bias typically emerges is in sales and marketing. Being too close to a product, service or industry can be a hindrance rather than a help. If you are speaking with industry peers, it is appropriate to dive into the nitty-gritty. Yet it’s important to remember that even they may not be as close to the project or the issue as you are. They, too, will inevitably appreciate a degree of message simplification.
Interestingly, studies have found that salespeople who are less informed of the product or service they are selling often sell more products that those who are “experts” on the product.
Can you imagine why?
They refrain from getting tangled up in the weeds of the product specifics. Instead, they tend to speak from a higher level, focusing on areas like product benefits. This captures people’s attention and helps them create an opening for more discussion and hopefully a resulting sale.
Basing your sales and marketing on this assumption can come at a cost, though. Oversimplification can drive customers away.
It really depends upon the type of product being sold. If you are a technical architect needing specific functionality from a product, you have to get down to product details to understand how this product will fit with your existing structures and processes.
I am currently developing an app to deliver my Business Brilliance products. It is important that any platform provider I choose can provide the level of functionality I need to deliver my training programmes effectively. I find the lack of specific information about the platform capabilities quite frustrating.
In truth, I am the type of person who likes to lift the bonnet, so to speak, to understand how things work. I appreciate the inner workings of science and technology. If I don’t understand something, I google it. So, it is annoying when providers fail to address those needs.
What keeps this bias persisting is a lack of audience empathy. If you want to be successful in business, you will benefit from knowing your audience. You will benefit from tailoring your message to the particular needs of your audience. And you will benefit from realising that different audiences have different informational needs.
While you can't cater for everyone, you can offer different degrees of information to satisfy as many people as possible. You will have a number of different audiences. Delivering an indecipherable message doesn’t make you look clever. Delivering clear messages and anticipating different communications needs will give your audiences the impression that you've made an effort to anticipate their business needs.
There’s a simple way to combat this bias — engage. Engage with your audience. Ask them if they need clarification. Notice the knitted brows of the people trying to work things out and challenge yourself to find a simple way of illustrating a complex idea. Metaphors are brilliant ways of helping people grasp complex concepts.
As a communicator, put yourself in the position of your audience as you consider and develop your message. Consider that leaving people with the experience of being enlightened, not confused, will boost your standing in their minds.
You’ll be regarded as a person contributing to the brilliance of others, and you’ll reap the rewards of their gratitude. You'll be known as a leader who creates other leaders. Isn’t that what teaching is really all about?