Tuesday 29 March 2016

Pointless, and the curse of knowledge

If you want a graphic illustration of the Curse of Knowledge, watch the UK quiz game "Pointless".

Contestants on the programme, who play in teams of two, are tasked with finding the most obscure answers to general knowledge questions based on pre-conducted public surveys of 100 people from the UK. They need to find a correct answer, based on their own knowledge, but which is known to as few as possible of the 100 people surveyed. A correct answer which none of the 100 people in the survey gave is deemed a "pointless" answer.

This game therefore requires you to know something, and then accurately guess how many other people might know it. It is not enough to get a correct answer, you need an obscure correct answer,

This takes us right into the realm of the Curse of Knowledge.

The curse of knowledge is the fact that if something is obvious to you, you assume it is obvious to everyone. This makes it very difficult to assess the level of someone else's knowledge. You can see the contestants in the program struggling with just this issue. Which of two possible answers, which they both know, are less known to the general public? The curse of knowledge makes it hard to know.

Why is this important in Knowledge Management?

The curse of knowledge needs to be overcome when an expert is transferring knowledge, particularly through writing guidance. The problem is that once we know something, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.

Therefore the expert has to be very careful when documenting knowledge. They have to either try to put themselves in the mind of the novice, or (better) involve someone else in the documentation process; a knowledge engineer, or the novice themselves.

If the expert does not take account of the curse of knowledge, then the documented knowledge can be incomprehensible to the user, and the whole knowledge transfer exercise becomes, well, Pointless. 

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