I drink, and I know things (aka the curse of knowledge)

One of the most famous quotes from Game of Thrones comes from one of the most boring scenes (the scene didn’t have any fighting, death, nudity, dragons, more nudity, or zombies). In this scene, Tyrion, Missandei, Varys and Grey Worm are discussing why the dragons aren’t eating. Don’t worry if you have no idea who these people are – it’s not important to the quote.

Grey Worm: If the dragon does not want to eat, how do you force him to eat?

Tyrion: Dragons do not do well in captivity.

Missandei: How do you know this?

Tyrion: That’s what I do. I drink, and I know things.


And, right at that moment, at least 15,000 bar trivia teams got their name.

Learning is good. Knowing things is good. After all, G.I. Joe taught me that “knowing is half the battle.” But knowledge can also be a curse. Sometimes it can be difficult to remember that you know things others don’t, and you act as if you know them. This is called the “curse of knowledge,” and we see it in demos and presentations all the time.


Theory of Mind

In his book If I Understood you, Would I Have This Look on my Face?, actor and communications expert Alan Alda talks at length about something called the “Theory of Mind,” as it greatly impacts our ability to connect with each other. If empathy is the heart, or the ability to feel what others are feeling, then Theory of Mind is the brain, or our ability to understand what others are feeling. As some very smart people put it:


Theory of Mind (ToM) [is] the capacity to make inferences about and represent others’ intentions, goals and motives (other terms include mentalizing and cognitive empathy). – Frontiers in Psychiatry

Theory of Mind is how we understand that others have different beliefs and thoughts than we do. It gives us our ability to infer what others are thinking or believing. To see things from someone else’s perspective.


As Theory of Mind develops in children (usually around ages 3-5), they typically go through 5 phases: First they understand that people might want something for different reasons, then that peoples’ beliefs about the same thing can be different, then that people may not understand or know something, then that people can hold false beliefs, and, finally, that people can lie or deceive (I know, this last one is super depressing).


To illustrate this, imagine a child and parent in the kitchen, and the parent puts a cookie in the cookie jar. The child then takes the cookie from the jar, somehow doesn’t eat it, and instead puts it in the cabinet as a prank (it’s not a good prank, but it’s a kid, so just go with it). The parent comes back and wants the cookie – where will they look?


Children who have developed a Theory of Mind, as well as most adults, will correctly identify that the parent will look in the jar, even though the cookie isn’t there. We recognize that the parent doesn’t know the cookie was moved, therefore they’ll check where they think it is (we identify the false belief).


Children who have not yet developed a Theory of Mind, as well as individuals on the Autism spectrum, will say that the parent will check the cabinet, because these individuals aren’t able to comprehend that the parent’s knowledge isn’t the same as their own. They know the cookie is in the cabinet, so the parent must know that too.


However, just because someone has a well developed Theory of Mind doesn’t always mean that they pay attention to what it’s telling them.


Reading the room


Demos and presenters are expected to “read the room.” We have to be able to gauge audiences as we’re presenting to them, and adjust if they don’t seem to be responding to us. Sometimes, even virtually, the signs that they’re not responding are obvious – audiences will look at their phones or other monitors, or will give half-hearted responses.


Sometimes, the signs aren’t so obvious. The gestures are smaller. The tone changes are slight. An experienced presenter can pick up on these signals and adjust. But they’re easy to miss, especially to the untrained eye.


It’s not just about identifying when we lose the audience – we should do everything we can to prevent them from checking out in the first place. And it’s easy to lose an audience. One of the most common mistakes that a presenter makes is assuming that the audience knows things that they might not.


The curse of knowledge


Presenters typically know their software pretty well. Either they’re new, and just came off their own training, and all of the features are fresh on their minds. Or they’ve been showing the software for a long time and are a bit on autopilot.


To compound the issue, longer you use or demo your software, the more certain things are second nature. The menus, the quirks, the “robust” dashboards. The software becomes easier to use, because you know how to use it. But it’s easy to forget that others don’t.


Let’s say you’re showing your software to someone for the very first time. You show some screens and talk about how it’s “easy” and “user-friendly.” Meanwhile, the audience just stares at you, because they haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. But they don’t want to look stupid in front of you, or their boss, so they’ll smile. Their reactions are what’s known as pluralistic ignorance – which is our tendency to assume that, if no one acts confused or asks questions, then we must be the ones who don’t understand while everyone else does.