How the “Curse of Knowledge” Can Hurt Your Business and What to Do About It

The “curse of knowledge” is a cognitive bias that occurs when you understand something and then assume that other people understand it too. This is a very common cause of friction in marriages. For example, one partner agrees to go to grandma’s for Thanksgiving and assumes the other knows this too.

“I’m sure I told you!”

This is also a commercial issue. It’s easy to assume everyone else knows what you know. Here are some examples of how this particular bias may crop up in a business setting, along with some suggested solutions.

Digging Deeper: How Marketers Use Cognitive Biases to Influence Customer Decisions

customer service

My friend Ralph worked in 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 mug, and Ralph would get frustrated and point to the obvious sign that said “No Complimentary Mugs”.

The thing is, if you’re working 15 hours a week for three months, the signs are very noticeable. If it’s your first visit, it won’t be so obvious. You can’t expect people to read every sign wherever they go.


  • Regularly remind your employees that they have special knowledge and familiarity that your customers don’t.
  • Find a way to track where customers are getting confused, or find a better way to communicate with them, or modify your policies to accommodate their preconceptions. After all, which is more expensive, giving away a free cup or frustrating employees and customers?

website design

The curse of knowledge also interferes with web, app, and e-commerce design. What’s obvious to a programmer or designer isn’t necessarily obvious to a client — especially “intuitive” things that we’re all supposed to know somehow.

When I got a new phone not too long ago, I had to look up instructions to change some settings, some of which started with something like “Go to your home screen”, which made me have to look up “Where is the main screen?”

Don’t assume your customers know what you know.


  • Where possible, use standard features that everyone is used to. Or in other words, when in doubt, copy Amazon.
  • Before rolling out a design change or new feature, ask several people don’t know anything about the project review it.
  • Have Apple users test your Android instructions, and vice versa.
  • Create a reporting mechanism to track issues. If you expect people to follow a certain path, check that they behave as you expect.
  • Make it easy for customers to report when they’re confused or frustrated.
  • Reinforce the attitude that if the customer misunderstood, you didn’t communicate well enough.

Digging Deeper: 4 Cognitive Biases and Psychological Drivers That Influence Behavior

project management

I’m afraid I’m guilty of this. “Updates are always in the 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 acted on what you said. Project managers are on projects every day. It’s clear to the project manager that we need X before Y, we’ve decided on 1 vs. 2 and Z is due on Tuesday. It’s not obvious to someone who has other worries and responsibilities.

The curse of knowledge can also be reversed, where the technician is aware of the problem but the project manager is overwhelmed.


  • overcommunication. Yes, it’s annoying, but it’s better than poor communication.
  • Include links to important project documents in your regular updates. Make sure people know where to find updates.
  • Project managers should check with technical staff to get their perspective on immediate issues.

Buzzwords and industry jargon

Is your salesman talking gibberish for using buzzwords and acronyms? They may think it makes them sound like they know what they’re talking about, or they may be so used to the buzzword that they can’t control it, but this will turn off many of your potential customers.


  • Get in the habit of using your full name before your acronym.
  • When you use an industry buzzword and find another way to say the same thing, stop. Besides not sounding like a tool, you’ll expand your vocabulary and ultimately understand the concept better.

offended by a breach of etiquette

I don’t play golf, but I know there are a lot of rules for having a business meeting on a golf course. One of them is not talking about business while golfing. I didn’t know until yesterday, so if someone invited me to play golf, I would probably screw up on the 7th hole and make a deal.

In many cases, we fear being “ugly Americans” who don’t understand local customs, but the problem can also be reversed. Just like a foreigner thinks an American is rude when the truth is that he simply doesn’t understand our expectations, we can make the mistake of thinking someone is 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 social norms.

it also cuts the other way

You don’t want to assume people know what you know, but that can be annoying if you go too far. For example, I recently heard a vendor talk to the Publishers Association. These guys probably know more about subscriptions than anyone on the planet. The vendor took five minutes to explain what a subscription was. This 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 professionals like novices. It can be difficult to strike a balance, but if you regularly remind yourself of that pesky “knowledge curse,” you’ll do just fine.

Digging Deeper: Using Psychology and Better Data Practices to Bring Customers Closer to Buying

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The views expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

about the author

Greg Crebill

Greg’s decades-long career in B2B and B2C publishing has included long stints in editorial, marketing, product development, web development, management and operations. He is an expert in bridging the intellectual and cultural gap between technologists and creatives. As a consultant, Greg solves technical, strategic, operational and process issues for publishers. His specialties include customer data platforms, acquisition and retention, e-commerce, RFP, fulfillment and project management. Learn more at

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