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"Highlights from FBF 2023"

An Antidote to the Curse of Knowledge


When celebrated cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker was recently asked what he considered to be the greatest impediment to clear communication, he named the “curse of knowledge” cognitive bias. This is the phenomenon where a person who knows something finds it extremely difficult to imagine what it is like to not know it. This can lead to the knowledgeable person using jargon, providing inadequate explanations, and skipping steps in descriptions. For anyone who works with others, these problems are familiar, incredibly frustrating, and until now, seemingly inescapable.

A particularly dramatic case of this is Leonard Jacobs’ tale of his week from hell freelancing as blog manager at an unnamed financial publishing company. Starting from an incredibly vague job description that didn’t go beyond the requirement that he “manage the blog”, to not having the relevant people informed about his arrival, to different supervisors giving inconsistent feedback, before concluding with his dismissal. This was a debacle by any measure. But the question remains: how did this happen? And why do incidents like this continue to happen so frequently in the workplace?

There are two common reasons that can be proposed: people are evil or they are plain incompetent. While the tales of sadistic bosses are certainly common enough, the publishing company employees who feature in Jacobs’ tale, “Maria” and “Buehler,” hardly seem wicked. And while they do seem somewhat incompetent, it might very well have turned out that they were excellent at their own jobs. I suggest the better explanation is Pinker’s “curse of knowledge”, where communication breaks down in communities, not due to individual incompetence, but due to people’s inability to imagine how it feels for another person to not know something. After all, the person who wrote the report made up of “just three words” probably thought it made sense, but only because they could not see in the moment how much background information would actually be required for someone else to understand.

Pinker’s own advice to manage this bias is to choose words more carefullyand test out messaging. The problems with solutions like these are two-fold. The first is that messaging can only work if you know who the intended audience for a message is. In large organizations this is simply not going to be possible since this might not be decided until later. Moreover, the root of this bias is that people are for the most part unaware that they are being unclear, so even if they tried choosing words more carefully, they could still continue to be totally opaque.

While no silver bullet for this problem exists, a technological solution that organizations increasingly rely on is the workflow. As Wikipedia defines it:

A workflow consists of an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of business activity enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information.

To put it simply, a workflow is a way of formalizing instructions and rules to govern how the workplace functions, which allocates roles, rights, and responsibilities to the various people involved in a project. This doesn’t make people communicate better, but it brings about a situation where they don’t have to. Now, instructions won’t have to be interpreted from a few cryptic words, since they will be embedded within the system itself. This also means that people don’t have to spend time and attention trying to remember what the latest set of instructions are — they can just mechanically submit and let the pre-set instructions take over. And the use of automatically assigned templates can be used to make clear that there are expectations to be met and so certain kinds of reports — Jacobs’ three word ones, for example — will simply not do.

And the best part is that with sophisticated workflow tools, the sheer range of options available ensures that the chosen workflow doesn’t have to be any more constricting than necessary. Human behavior is never going to be as rational or as clear as we would like, but that is no reason not to seek ways to optimize and streamline things as much as possible.

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