I first came across the term “curse of knowledge” during my reading of Made To Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. (Incidentally, it seems the Heath brothers delivered on the promise implicit in this particular title, since a lot of what they covered in this book … well, stuck.)
curse of knowledge: a cognitive bias that inhibits communication
This definition seems ironic to me, since whoever wrote it apparently had a curse of knowledge going on.
Let me give it another go here.
curse of knowledge: when you know something so well or are so familiar with a topic, that you talk about it using words and terms that assume everyone else knows it equally well
For me, the curse of knowledge can slip in when I write in ways that assume all or most readers have read my book or followed my blog for a long time, and therefore understand fully what I mean by things like “You always have a choice”; or that they are already familiar with certain people I talk about, such as Dib or Chad. It even happens when I use terms like “the election” or “this holiday weekend,” forgetting that not all of my readers live in the United States.
It happens to all of us at some point, no matter how intentional we may be about clarity and inclusivity.
Well, one reader’s response to last week’s post caused me to suspect that perhaps a bit of the curse had crept in. You see, I’ve thought and written and talked so often about perceived gains over the years that it feels like everyone knows what I’m talking about. It occurred to me in the last week, however, that the meaning of the term is not necessarily self-evident.
In my first year blogging, I wrote quite a bit about perceived gains, including a series of posts called “why we do,” part one and part two. These were later combined and edited to form a chapter in my book, The Best Advice So Far. Today — more than six years later — I’m adding a part three, in hopes that I might “reverse the curse [of knowledge]” where perceived gains are concerned.
Here is the statement I made last week:
“Virtually everything we do in life is done for a perceived gain.”
At least one reader took this as my saying that we all do things for selfish and ulterior motives, or that altruism is a myth. In actuality, this couldn’t be further from what I meant.
Let’s start with a simple, concrete example: Eating a piece of bread.
Fringe cases such as force feeding, Alzheimer’s or Prader-Willi Syndrome aside, eating a piece of bread involves intention. It is not an involuntary function, such as the beating of our hearts.
In other words, eating a piece of bread is a choice. We reach. We pick it up. We place it in our mouth. We chew. We swallow.
I’ve often stated that understanding motive is more important than behavior or outcome. That’s because for every what, there is an underlying why. In other words, wherever choice comes into play in our lives, so does motivation.
So ten different people may eat a piece of bread cut from the same loaf. On the surface, they are all doing very much the same thing. But I’d like to propose that something as simple as eating a piece of bread may be done for any number of reasons. And so the perceived gains of ten people in eating a slice of bread may be quite different.
A starving man may eat the bread because he believes (i.e., perceives) that it will aid in keeping him alive (i.e., the gain). All things being equal, what this man perceives is likely true and correct. The gain is realistic and reasonable: eating will likely result in keeping him alive a while longer.
And so here we have a perceived gain that works:
I believe eating the bread will keep me alive.
I eat it.
I stay alive.
In other words, what I believed would happen … does happen.
If we like, we can also separately consider motive. Is the man’s perceived gain rooted in ill intent? Most would not consider self-preservation to be selfish, no.
Let’s move down the table.
The next man is not starving. In fact, he is not even hungry. He eats the bread because he is curious. Is the bread warm? Is the crust crunchy? Is the middle soft? How will it compare to my grandmother’s homemade bread? And so he chooses to eat the bread:
I believe eating the bread will satisfy my curiosity.
I eat the bread.
My curiosity is satisfied.
Curiosity seems a fine motivation, albeit a different one from survival.
Same choice. Two different people. Two different reasons. Both perceived gains are satisfied.
The next woman is neither hungry nor curious. She is sad. Her husband has left her after twenty years of marriage. She feels empty. Numb. She wants to feel something — anything — besides this gnawing feeling of loneliness and failure:
I believe eating the bread will give me comfort and make me feel less sad and empty.
I eat the bread.
I still feel sad and empty.
Don’t miss this. In this woman’s case, the perceived gain was not met.
And is her motivation bad? Not really. She wants to feel happy, loved. However, eating the bread will not satisfy that desire.
Not one slice. Not ten. Because eating bread has no connection to banishing loneliness.
But if the woman never stops to realize the disconnect, she may continue to try to meet her perceived gain in ways that will not only fail, but may actually cause her further harm.
The next person eats the bread because everyone else is eating it, and he wants to fit in.
The next is not hungry but eats out of fear that, if she does not eat it now, all the bread will be gone when she does feel hungry.
The next eats out of spite, simply to deprive his enemy of getting a slice.
Another eats to acknowledge and appreciate the host and baker’s hard work.
The possible perceived gains are endless.
And this applies to a whole lot more than eating.
If I threaten and punish my children/students/workers as a means of demanding respect, I may strive to continually employ different or harsher measures, without ever realizing that respect cannot be demanded, only ever earned. And so the perceived gain is never met:
I want respect.
I threaten and punish.
I am still not respected.
If I give money to hurricane relief or another charity so that people will notice and praise me, I may become bitter when that recognition doesn’t come or isn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. But if I give in secret because I truly want to help those in need, the perceived gain has been achieved and I feel at peace.
If I write because I believe it will make me rich and famous, I may be sorely disappointed and perpetually frustrated when that doesn’t happen. But if I’m writing because I believe that it will help more people live happier lives, then my perceived gain stands a good chance of being reached, resulting in my feeling motivated to continue in a positive frame of mind.
Any of our perceptions may be accurate or inaccurate. Some may lead to the desired gain. Others may not. When I speak about perceived gains, I’m not holding up any sort of moral compass to the motivation. That’s a separate consideration. I’m merely pointing out that we have reasons — good, bad or somewhere in between — for what we do.
And if we don’t periodically stop and figure out or remind ourselves of what those reasons are, and to adjust them as necessary, we may wind up wasting lots of time and energy that could be put to better use.
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