The Curse of Knowledge: Part 1

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Unsurprisingly, the idea of knowledge as a curse seems counterintuitive. In an information-based industry like requirements analysis, how could knowledge be considered anything other than positive? The answer involves cognitive biases–more specifically, the “tendency to acquire and process information by filtering it through one’s own likes, dislikes, and experiences.”

The curse of knowledge refers to a specific cognitive bias whereby having knowledge about a topic makes it difficult to conceive of how that same topic would be perceived by someone with less information. To give an example that is as ironic as it is apropos, my initial draft of this blog post contained numerous conceptual leaps and assumptions that would only make sense to someone already familiar with my topic. Unsurprisingly, my own curse of knowledge became abundantly clear when I asked a colleague who had never heard of cognitive biases to proofread my work.

In spite of my familiarity with cognitive biases, the curse of knowledge significantly influenced my thought processes, as well as my ability to successfully communicate. Consider the implications for communicators who are not similarly aware. Within the context of requirements analysis, some of the most overt manifestations of “the curse” occur during conversations with subject matter experts (SMEs). By definition, subject matter experts are thoroughly immersed in the detailed information specific to their domains. Attempts to communicate that knowledge to less-informed requirements analysts frequently involve complex explanations that omit basic, but crucial, connections.

As requirements analysts, it’s important that we actively collaborate with our SMEs to establish a working context for the fundamental information that is often taken for granted. Though this can be difficult to do in a project with a lot of momentum, it’s a necessary investment of time and resources. Even a 30-minute conversation devoted to asking the SME(s) basic, high level questions can provide critical insights while facilitating the establishment of a shared knowledge base.

In Part 2 of this series, I’ll examine some strategies that can be used to mitigate the curse of knowledge as an obstacle to successful communication. Thanks for reading, and feel free to share any personal experiences with this cognitive bias in the comments!

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