Writers with expertise on a particular topic often are blind to the fact that their audience is not as knowledgeable.
When a person has extensive knowledge about a particular topic, she becomes consumed by the details and nuances of the subject, which can lead to what is called the curse of knowledge. The more she learns, the more fascinated she becomes, which prompts her to accumulate even more insight. When she writes a communication about the topic, it never occurs to her that the audience probably is not nearly as familiar with the details of this subject as she is. Consequently, their eyes glaze over.
The curse of knowledge is a concept first identified by economics researcher and Professor Robin Hogarth. “We all tend to underestimate how much of our own knowledge is not shared by others with whom we are communicating,” he told me in an email. “What’s obvious to us is not necessarily obvious to others.”
When we write (even if we’re writing a speech that we will deliver), we write from our perspective, thinking about what we want to say and what we think the audience needs to know. We are immersed in our expertise, and it never occurs to us that many readers or listeners won’t comprehend what we’re saying.
Hogarth’s colleagues, economists Colin Camerer, George Lowenstein, and Martin Weber, applied the curse of knowledge to an economics context in 1990. In the Journal of Political Economy, they said expertise sometimes can hinder business owners. They noted that wine experts taste wines, retailers watch clothes being modeled, and theater owners watch movies before they are released, and then sell those goods to a less-informed public,. If the experts suffer from the curse of knowledge, goods will be overpriced or underpriced because “prices will reflect characteristics (such as quality) that are unobservable to uninformed buyers,” the economists said. Too many experts “think their knowledge is shared by others.”