The Curse of Knowledge

How many people do you think live in Antarctica?

My younger brother asked me that question recently.

I will admit that I am clueless when it comes to geography. I can hardly locate Antarctica on a map, let alone tell you any facts about its population.

Since I had no idea, I figured I would guess a nice round number.

“1 million,” I said.

If he said anything in reply, I couldn’t hear it over his laughter.

I figured I was a little off.

Turns out, I was way off – by like 999,000.

When he finally stopped laughing, my brother explained to me that Antarctica is very cold and basically the only people who live there are scientists.

He could not believe that I would be so incorrect in my guess. Like he literally could not believe it. Not literally in the way a high school girl is literally going to die if she doesn’t get asked to prom by the star of the football team. Literally, in the sense that he could not wrap his brain around how I could be so off. Literally, in the sense that he still to this day asks me what I was thinking, even though our Antarctica trivia conversation happened months ago.

To me it seemed like a reasonable guess. Sure I knew Antarctica is cold, but I figured that since it was a continent it had to have a lot of people. And 1 million seemed like a safe enough guess. (Turns out, “having a lot of people” is not a prerequisite to being a continent, who knew?)

My brother knows a lot about geography and like I said earlier, I am clueless about that stuff.

He has knowledge and I do not. And if there is one thing I learned from School House Rock, it is that knowledge is power.

But it turns out that knowledge can be more that just power. It can also be a curse.

In a 1990 study, Elizabeth Newton, a Stanford University graduate student in psychology, created a game in which she assigned people to one of two roles: “tapper” or “listener.” The tapper was told to choose a well-known song, such as “Happy Birthday,” and tap out the rhythm on a table. All the listener had to do was guess the song.

Newton recorded the results of 120 songs. Listeners correctly guessed a whopping three songs. A 2.5% success ratio.

Before the listeners guessed, Newton asked the tappers to predict how frequently they thought the listeners would guess the song correctly. They predicted 50%.

The listeners thought they would get their message across one out of two times, but the results found it to only be one out of 40. How could they be so off?

Newton called this result, the curse of knowledge.

To the tapper, it is impossible not to hear the tune to Happy Birthday. But all listener hears is a jumbled mix of tapping. It sounds like Happy Birthday just as much as it sounds like Who Let The Dogs Out. But the tapper doesn’t expect this because he/she forgets what it is like to not know the answer.

This same thing happens to us all the time.

Once we know something – like the melody of a song, or the population of Antarctica – we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. As a tapper, we cannot understand the mindset of a listener.

As Newton puts it, we are cursed by our knowledge.

Even though my brother will read this and think this post is retaliation for him laughing at me, that is not my point (well, maybe just a little). My point is that we can all fall victim to the curse of knowledge.

Remember that time you lost patience with your mom because you had to explain iTunes to her for the fifth time? Or that time you snapped at a co-worker because he filled out the order report incorrectly?

Turns out, just maybe your mom and your co-worker weren’t trying to annoy you on purpose.

We have just forgotten what it was like to not know iTunes or how to fill out an order report.

They were just being a listener, unaware of the knowledge that you – the tapper – had.

Not everyone knows what we know. Once we recognize that, we will find it much easier to identify with another person’s situation and explain things in a way they will be able to understand.

And yes, now that I know the real population of Antarctica, my guess does seem laughable.



Photo credit: Wikipedia