IT’S a pickle of a paradox: As our knowledge and expertise increase, our creativity and ability to innovate tend to taper off. Why? Because the walls of the proverbial box in which we think are thickening along with our experience.
Andrew S. Grove, the co-founder of Intel, put it well in 2005 when he told an interviewer from Fortune, “When everybody knows that something is so, it means that nobody knows nothin’.” In other words, it becomes nearly impossible to look beyond what you know and think outside the box you’ve built around yourself.
This so-called curse of knowledge, a phrase used in a 1989 paper in The Journal of Political Economy, means that once you’ve become an expert in a particular subject, it’s hard to imagine not knowing what you do. Your conversations with others in the field are peppered with catch phrases and jargon that are foreign to the uninitiated. When it’s time to accomplish a task — open a store, build a house, buy new cash registers, sell insurance — those in the know get it done the way it has always been done, stifling innovation as they barrel along the well-worn path.
Elizabeth Newton, a psychologist, conducted an experiment on the curse of knowledge while working on her doctorate at Stanford in 1990. She gave one set of people, called “tappers,” a list of commonly known songs from which to choose. Their task was to rap their knuckles on a tabletop to the rhythm of the chosen tune as they thought about it in their heads. A second set of people, called “listeners,” were asked to name the songs.
Before the experiment began, the tappers were asked how often they believed that the listeners would name the songs correctly. On average, tappers expected listeners to get it right about half the time. In the end, however, listeners guessed only 3 of 120 songs tapped out, or 2.5 percent.