The expert trap – The 200 words project

What comes to mind when you see this image?

Expert Trap

When most people see this image, they see shock, danger, fear, and a gun pointed at a child.

However, when law enforcement officials were shown this picture in class, they immediately noticed that the official’s finger was not on the trigger. This, in turn, meant that, as per protocol, the child was not in any danger.

The law enforcement officials’ expert knowledge had resulted in a complete disconnect with a normal human reaction.

In a famous study, Stanford graduate student Elizabeth Newton studied a simple game where she asked people to tap a famous song (like “Happy birthday!”) and asked the listener to guess the song. The listener success rate was 2.5% (3 out of 120 songs). And, yet, when she asked the tappers the probability that listeners understood their song, they predicted 50% success on average.

These expert trap/”curse of knowledge” studies illustrate that it is clearly difficult to un-know what we know. They, therefore, point to an interesting idea for us as communicators –   a first step for when we communicate (difficult) ideas is to discipline ourselves to list what we assume/take for granted. We are, then, less likely to fall into the expert trap.

The problem is that once we know something—say, the melody of a song—we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. We have difficulty sharing it with others, because we can’t readily re-create their state of mind.


Source and thanks to: Prof Adam Waytz @ Kellogg, HBR

0 thoughts on “The expert trap – The 200 words project

  1. Well that explains a lot. I do this constantly. I have always struggled to “show my work.” A good reminder to list of the seemingly small steps.

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