The Curse of Knowledge

Stephen DeAngelis

January 04, 2008

One of my favorite topics is innovation. Creative people are exciting to be around and studies about creativity and innovation always offer interesting insights. New studies are showing that creativity often suffers when one is unable to expose oneself to influences outside of their normal routines [“Innovative Minds Don’t Think Alike, ” by Janet Rae-Dupree, New York Times, 30 December 2007].

“It’s a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience. Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, ‘When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.’ In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself. This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.”

There is a lot of denial when it comes to the curse of knowledge. Nobody likes to admit that they are incapable of thinking out of the box. Entrepreneurs pride themselves on being able to envision the “next big thing.” Designers and inventors are always looking for better ways to do things. The good ones have learned tricks that help them break down the walls of knowledge. According to Rae-Dupree psychologists have conducted experiments that demonstrate that a person’s first instinct is to think about old things rather than new things. That’s not really surprising since we can only think about what we know.

“Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called ‘tappers,’ a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called ‘listeners,’ were asked to name the songs. Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent. The tappers were astounded. The song was so clear in their minds; how could the listeners not ‘hear’ it in their taps?”

Rae-Dupree’s article didn’t provide any other specifics about the experiment, such as whether “listeners” were given the same list of songs from which to choose as the “tappers.” The tappers, of course, heard the tune in their minds not just the monotone taps they were drumming. I suspect that had the taps been recorded and played back a week later to the tappers themselves, they would have been hard-pressed to identify the tunes. The point, however, was that listeners heard whatever tune they could imagine in their minds that fit the rhythms being tapped out by the tappers. In other words, they could only think about what they already knew. Again — not a surprise.

“That’s a common reaction when experts set out to share their ideas in the business world, too, says Chip Heath, who with his brother, Dan, was a co-author of the 2007 book ‘Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.’ It’s why engineers design products ultimately useful only to other engineers. It’s why managers have trouble convincing the rank and file to adopt new processes. And it’s why the advertising world struggles to convey commercial messages to consumers.”

Rae-Dupree notes that there are ways to “exorcise the curse.” I have written about one of those ways before. Frans Johansson calls it “The Medici Effect” in his book of the same name. He argues in favor of creating a space in which people from diverse fields of expertise can get together to exchange ideas. The Medici’s, of course, were a wealthy and powerful Italian family who played an important role in the Renaissance. The family’s wealth permitted it to support artists, philosophers, theologians, and scientists, whose combined intellect helped burst the historical pall known as the Dark Ages. Getting people with different knowledge bases together means that none of them can remain within the walls of their own knowledge domain for long. As a result, good ideas normally emerge. The solutions Rae-Dupree writes about are more about communicating ideas than developing them; although they touch on the Medici Effect.

“In their book, the Heath brothers outline six ‘hooks’ that they say are guaranteed to communicate a new idea clearly by transforming it into what they call a Simple Unexpected Concrete Credentialed Emotional Story. Each of the letters in the resulting acronym, Succes, refers to a different hook. (‘S,’ for example, suggests simplifying the message.) Although the hooks of ‘Made to Stick’ focus on the art of communication, there are ways to fashion them around fostering innovation. To innovate, Mr. Heath says, you have to bring together people with a variety of skills. If those people can’t communicate clearly with one another, innovation gets bogged down in the abstract language of specialization and expertise. ‘It’s kind of like the ugly American tourist trying to get across an idea in another country by speaking English slowly and more loudly,’ he says. ‘You’ve got to find the common connections.’ In her 2006 book, ‘Innovation Killer: How What We Know Limits What We Can Imagine — and What Smart Companies Are Doing About It,’ Cynthia Barton Rabe proposes bringing in outsiders whom she calls zero-gravity thinkers to keep creativity and innovation on track.”

Zero-gravity thinkers are simply people who can look at the current situation with new eyes. Rae-Dupree provides the example of a woman who moved from Ralston Purina to Everyready. To that point in its history, Everyready was known for its red plastic flashlights sold primarily to men in hardware stores. But the flashlight business was declining. The female executive added bright new colors (pinks, blues, greens, etc.) and starting selling flashlights to women in supermarkets. Although this sounds like a sensible thing to do, the idea was met with resistance by the old timers at Everyready — but the idea turned out to be wildly successful. Forcing people to view challenges from a new perspective is the only way to break the curse of knowledge.

“‘Look for people with renaissance-thinker tendencies, who’ve done work in a related area but not in your specific field,’ [Cynthia Barton Rabe] says. ‘Make it possible for someone who doesn’t report directly to that area to come in and say the emperor has no clothes.'”

Renaissance thinkers question everything. They can be irritating and, when empowered, can be threatening. Nevertheless, they are critical to breaking down the walls of knowledge that box in thinking.