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The Science of Smart: Undoing the ‘Curse of Knowledge’

On the BBC “Future” blog, Tom Stafford explains why teaching is so hard to do well. It has to do with what is called the “curse of knowledge,” a psychological quirk whereby, once we have learned something, we find it hard to appreciate how the world looks to someone who doesn’t know it yet:

“Once you are familiar with a topic it is very hard to understand what someone who isn’t familiar with it needs to know. [To do so requires us to] recruit what psychologists call our ‘Theory of Mind,’ the ability to think about others’ beliefs and desires. Our skill at Theory of Mind is one of the things that distinguish humans from all other species—only chimpanzees seem to have anything approaching a true understanding that others might believe different things from themselves. We humans, on the other hand, seem primed from early infancy to practice thinking about how other humans view the world.

The fact that the curse of knowledge exists tells us how hard a problem it is to think about other people’s minds. Like many hard cognitive problems—such as seeing, for example—the human brain has evolved specialist mechanisms which are dedicate to solving it for us, so that we don’t normally have to expend conscious effort. Much of the time we [can understand others’ perspectives,] just as most of the time we simply open our eyes and see the world.

The good news is that your Theory of Mind isn’t completely automatic—you can use deliberate strategies to help you think about what other people know. A good one when writing is simply to force yourself to check every term to see if it is jargon—something you’ve learned the meaning of but not all your readers will know. Another strategy is to tell people what they can ignore, as well as what they need to know. This works well with directions (and results in instructions like ‘keep going until you see the red door. There’s a pink door, but that’s not it.’)

With a few tricks like this, and perhaps some general practice, we can turn the concept of trying to read other people’s minds—what some psychologists call ‘mind mindedness’—into a habit, and so improve our Theory of Mind abilities. Which is a good thing, since good theory of mind is what makes a considerate partner, friend or co-worker—and a good giver of directions.” (Read more here).

And a good teacher or parent, I’d add. Teachers out there, do you find yourself deliberately trying to see the world from the perspective of your students? How do you go about it? Same with parents—how do you imagine the world through your child’s eyes?

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Annie Murphy Paul

    Annie Murphy Paul is a book author and magazine journalist who writes about how we learn and how we can do it better. A contributor to Time magazine, she writes a weekly column about learning for, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, and O, The Oprah Magazine, among many other publications. She is the author of “The Cult of Personality,” a cultural history and scientific critique of personality tests, and of “Origins,” a book about the science of prenatal influences. She is now at work on “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart,” to be published by Crown in 2014. You can read more about the science of learning at her website,