Overcoming the Curse of Knowledge: Communicating at the proper level of detail
The curse of knowledge is the result of the personalized thinking that leads to the inability to remember a time before knowledge was acquired, and the overestimation of the level of information acquired in the past. The curse of knowledge has negative impacts on communication, prevents learning from one's experiences, and affects decision-making.
Updated on May 8, 2023
Researchers with compelling results to share show a remarkable talent to write obscure and overly complex manuscripts.
The psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker explained that academicians tend to write poorly because “when you know something … you just assume it’s common knowledge, and as a result, writers will use jargon …. They won’t give concrete detail that will allow readers to visualize what they’re describing”(1). Pinker and others explain this underlying cause of poor communication as “the curse of knowledge.”
To help authors write clear manuscripts, we explain the curse of knowledge, describe its effect on research communication, and suggest ideas for overcoming it.
What is the curse of knowledge and what causes it?
Although first described by economists (2), the curse of knowledge is typically characterized by the psychological term cognitive bias. It is an outcome of categorizing and summarizing information based on one’s own perspective and previously acquired knowledge.
Knowledge is the result of information assimilation, and the objective value placed on each piece of information is reduced as data are processed. Objective context is replaced with personalized meaning, which changes over time. Thus, the memory of the knowledge acquisition process is imperfect, with the timing and context often overgeneralized.
This personalized thinking leads to hindsight bias, the inability to remember a time before knowledge was acquired. It also leads to an overestimation of the level of information acquired in the past.
Moreover, differences between one’s own knowledge and that of others with less knowledge are underappreciated.
You can't “unknow” what you know
The knowledge gained practicing a hobby or working for years makes recreating novicehood impossible. Over time, knowledge becomes seemingly innate. This seemingly inherent knowledge can be confused with shared knowledge.
The curse of knowledge: Common in education and workplace settings
Communication imbalance caused by the curse of knowledge (which generally lead to disappointment) are common in training situations and informational hierarchies.
In educational settings, the curse of knowledge begins as experts providing ill-timed information. What student has not been frustrated by a professor lecturing on topics that are not covered on the test?
In the workplace, managers may miscalculate the level of information a trainee is acquiring from the work environment. Assuming the goal to be clear to trainees, managers may focus on the process without providing background information. Without context, trainees may neither ask important questions nor make independent judgments.
In unethical situations, more knowledgeable parties take advantage of asymmetric information to exploit less-knowledgeable partners.
What are the problems with the curse of knowledge?
Hindsight bias and asymmetric information underlie misunderstandings between individuals and groups. They can cause inaccurate assumptions, power differentials and information distortion that can be catastrophic. They can fracture relationships and even lead to war.
Fortunately, the curse of knowledge typically leads to less catastrophic outcomes. Nevertheless, it causes frustration.
It causes communication gaps
Discovery is transformed to a struggle as researchers move from ideation to goal setting to data collection and analysis. Thus, their focus shifts to the next question, discovery, and paper. Therefore, connections among the research questions, methodology, and larger field may remain unexplained as authors primarily aim to share findings.
It prevents learning from one’s own experiences
Failure to remember how knowledge was acquired hinders the ability to explain the knowledge in a manner that others can follow. To lead readers through a narrative, authors should present information in general-to-specific order with transitions that connect ideas.
It affects decision making
Even authors who recognize hindsight bias may unwittingly emphasize small points that only experts find interesting. Minutia or nuanced arguments presented without sufficient background may not be useful to field newcomers with little context to appreciate them.
Examples of the curse of knowledge in an academic manuscript
Specifically, authors may leave out or improperly emphasize details throughout a manuscript:
Title: Reader interest is captured in the title. However, because the research question is established long before the paper is written, the title may be overly focused on process, not results or impact.
For example, “The exploration into the mechanism underlying disease y” focuses on the actions of the researchers, whereas, “The mechanism underlying disease y is associated with drug resistance” provides key information on the study impact.
Abstract: To keep the reader engaged, the problem addressed by the study needs to be prominent in the abstract. Without reading a clear thesis statement to guide them, reviewers may evaluate the paper based on the topic they expected or wanted to read, not necessarily the paper that the author wrote.
A clear objective statement sets expectations and increases the likelihood reviewers will make a fair assessment.
Introduction: Failure to provide background information that explains the study rationale or significance in the introduction may be the clearest manifestation of the curse of knowledge. The reasons for choosing the study topic, subjects, and analyses need to be explained.
Methods: Similar to the introduction, the methods section requires a disciplined approach. Sufficient information needs to be presented to ensure that another researcher with reasonable understanding of the field can recapitulate the study. Failure to describe each method associated with a reported result may leave readers questioning an author’s expertise or integrity.
Methodology that does not seem appropriate to answer the research question is a common reason for paper rejection (3). Therefore, complete descriptions of all experimental and control groups and statistical tests are crucial.
Results: Forming the core of a study, results must be presented with precise language and supporting data. The curse of knowledge manifests in results that are not connected to the experiments or analyses described in the methods and discussion.
The narrative in the results section is straightforward. The organization should follow that of the methods, each result should be clearly related to the study aims, and all relevant data need to be reported.
Discussion: In the discussion, authors drive home the importance of their study. However, the curse of knowledge can lead to missed opportunities. A discussion without critical comparisons to related works, a missing limitations section or interpretations unconnected to the hypothesis can leave reviewers underwhelmed.
7 ways to overcome the curse of knowledge
1. Have another party critically read the manuscript
Because they know the intended message, most authors cannot accurately evaluate their own writing. Therefore, asking someone else to identify information gaps in a manuscript is an effective presubmission strategy.
Presubmission Review, an affordable AJE editing service, helps authors organize a balanced narrative by providing feedback on key aspects of a manuscript. Expert editors suggest paragraph and sentence reorganization to:
- Improve narrative flow
- Offer reminders to include important descriptions
- Identify areas where connections between objectives and key findings can be strengthened
- Highlight passages where vague language should be replaced with specific terms
Colleagues can suggest ways to improve an argument or interpret results. Notably, graduate students are acquiring knowledge that researchers consider innate. Therefore, students may be particularly helpful in identifying details needed to increase understanding.
2. Be aware
Driven to publish, scholars can lose sight of the main purpose of publishing: sharing information to advance the field. Recognizing hindsight bias can prevent misjudging the information to include or emphasize in a manuscript, enabling others to understand and use the findings.
3. Avoid assumptions
In addition to providing premises for subsequent studies, scholarly publications educate novices. Therefore, authors should not presume readers have learned or know much about the subject.
Notably, reviewers may have tangential understanding of topics for which authors are experts. Unclear objectives or unsubstantial discussion may leave reviewers unconvinced of the significance or novelty of the research.
Moreover, chaotic narratives may frustrate colleagues, driving them to choose another article to reference in their own studies. Thus, opportunities to have work cited are lost.
4. Avoid bad transitions
Transitional phrases tie concepts together and provide contextual clues about the value of the research. Authors cannot assume readers will make connections between the study objectives and results. Therefore, phrases that tie paragraphs together are important for helping readers follow the argument.
5. Use simple plain language
Flowery or dramatic language is distracting and undermines author credibility. Clear descriptions, not catchy phrases or stylized prose, underlie clear scholarly communication.
- Flowery version: The plethora of the litterateur’s unctuous utterings is profoundly pedestrian.
- Clear version: The author’s pompous writing is boring.
Using conventional field terms instead of jargon is also important for establishing credibility. Moreover, abbreviations should be defined to ensure clarity.
6. Label abbreviations
Abbreviations should be defined to ensure clarity. If you are going to use technical abbreviations throughout a manuscript, they should be clarified in longform first.
- American Journal Experts (AJE) has created a tool to assess the quality of your manuscript. AJE’s Language Assessment Tool (LAT) rates your manuscript for quality. LAT compares your manuscript with hundreds of thousands of edited and unedited papers to give you a quality score. LAT is AJE’s unique score that stands out from other academic editing services.
In this example, two acronyms, AJE and LAT, are specified with their longfrom name from the start. After clarifying the acronyms for the audience, the acronyms can be used throughout the paper instead of using the longform every time.
7. Create a picture
Writing a complete narrative is particularly difficult when lateral connections or complicated processes need to be explained. By referring to graphic workflows as rubrics, authors can remember details to include. Describing images of concepts first drawn as mind maps or storyboard pictures can help writers compose a logical narrative.
For example, a biologist might refer to a diagram of complex interrelated protein networks to visualize and then describe complex signaling pathways. Notably, simple explanations are important even when figures are included in a paper.
The inability to recapture novicehood causes the curse of knowledge. However, through mindful inclusion of context, details that support the results, and complete descriptions written in straightforward language, authors can break the curse.
- Harvard Befler Center. (2016, Aug. 1). Steven Pinker: Why do academics write so poorly. Retrieved April 26, 2023 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9AN2tbfSGm4&t=62s.
- Camerer, C., Loewenstein, G., and Weber, M. (1989). The curse of knowledge in economic settings: An experimental analysis. Journal of Political Economy, 19(5), 1232–1254. Accessed May 1, 2023 from https://www.cmu.edu/dietrich/sds/docs/loewenstein/CurseknowledgeEconSet.pdf.
- Springer Nature. 2023. Common reasons for rejection. Accessed May 6, 2023, from https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/submitting-to-a-journal-and-peer-review/what-is-open-access/10285582.
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