It’s easy to assume that everyone else knows what you know. Here are some examples of where this bias can crop up and how to deal with it.
“The curse of knowledge” is a cognitive bias that occurs when you understand something and then assume everyone else understands it as well. It’s a very common cause of friction in marriages. For instance, one spouse agrees to go to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving and assumes the other spouse knows that as well.
“I’m sure I told you that!”
It’s also a problem in business. It’s very easy to assume that everyone else knows what you know. Here are some examples of where this particular bias can crop up in business situations, along with some proposed solutions.
My friend Ralph had a job at a fast-food restaurant in high school and he would sometimes complain at the lunch table about dealing with customers. Someone would ask if they could get a complimentary cup, and Ralph would get frustrated and point to the obvious sign that said “no complimentary cups.”
The thing is, the sign is very obvious if you’ve worked there 15 hours a week for three months. It’s not as obvious if it’s your first visit. You can’t expect people to read every sign everywhere they go.
- Regularly remind your staff that they have special knowledge and familiarity that your customers don’t have.
- Find a way to track where customers are getting confused and either find a better way to communicate with them or amend your policy to fit their preconceptions. After all, what’s more expensive, giving away a free cup or having frustrated staff and customers?
The curse of knowledge also interferes with web, app and ecommerce design. What’s obvious to the programmer, or the designer, is not necessarily obvious to the customer — especially those “intuitive” things we’re all supposed to know somehow.
When I got a new phone a while ago, I had to look up instructions to change some of the settings and some of them started with something like “go to your home screen,” which just made me have to look up “where is the home screen on a Pixel?”
Don’t assume your customers know what you know.
- Where possible, use the standard features everyone is used to. Or in other words, when in doubt, copy Amazon.
- Before you roll out a design change or a new feature, have several people who know nothing about the project review it.
- Have Apple users test your Android instructions and vice versa.
- Create reporting mechanisms to track problems. If you expect people to follow a certain path, check to see if they’re behaving the way you expected.
- Make it easy for customers to report when they’re confused or frustrated.
- Reinforce the attitude that if a customer misunderstands, you have not communicated well enough.
I’m afraid I’m guilty of this one. “The updates are always in that spreadsheet I shared with you during the kickoff meeting. Didn’t you bookmark it?”
Just because you said something doesn’t mean people heard you, understood you or took action based on what you said. A project manager is in the project every day. It’s obvious to the project manager that we need X before Y, that we already decided on 1 vs. 2 and that Z is due on Tuesday. It’s not obvious to people who have other worries and responsibilities.
The curse of knowledge can also go the other way, where the technical people are aware of a problem, but the project manager is out of the loop.
- Overcommunicate. Yes, it’s annoying, but it’s better than miscommunication.
- Include links to important project documents in your regular updates. Make sure people know where they can find updates.
- Project managers should check in with the technical people to hear their perspectives on looming problems.
Buzzwords and industry lingo
Do your salesmen speak in incomprehensible gibberish because they use buzzwords and acronyms? They might think it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about, or maybe they’re so used to the buzzwords that they can’t help it, but it’s turning off many of your prospects.
- Make it a habit to use the full name for something before you use the acronym.
- Stop yourself when you use an industry buzzword and find another way to say the same thing. In addition to not sounding like a tool, you’ll expand your vocabulary and end up understanding the concept better.
Taking offense over breaches of etiquette
I don’t play golf, but I understand there are a lot of rules for business meetings on the golf course. One of them is that you don’t talk business while you’re playing golf. I didn’t know that until (January 09, 2023), so if someone invited me on a golf trip, I might mess up and talk business on the 7th hole.
There are lots of situations where we fear being the “ugly American” who doesn’t know the local customs, but the problem can go the other way as well. Just like the foreigner can think the American is being rude when the truth is that he simply doesn’t understand the expectations, we can mistakenly assume someone is being rude when they don’t understand our norms.
- Never assume malice when ignorance is a good enough explanation.
- Before you do something new, take a few minutes to learn the rules, including the social norms.
It cuts the other way as well
You don’t want to assume that people know things you know, but it can be annoying if you go too far the other way. For example, I recently heard a vendor speak to an association of publishers. These folk probably know more about subscriptions than anybody on the planet. The vendor spent five minutes explaining what a subscription is. That can be annoying.
In other words, while you don’t want to assume everyone knows what you know, you also don’t want to treat educated, professional people like novices. It can be a hard balance to strike, but if you frequently remind yourself about that pesky “curse of knowledge,” you’ll do great.
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