The Color of Strawberries and the Curse of Knowledge

A recent meme asks: What color are the strawberries? Most people will see the strawberries as being red even though there is no “red” pixel in the image. Our minds fill in the red because of our experience with strawberries, and because we can tell the entire image has a blue filter.

There is an auditory illusion involving apparently unintelligible sound. When human speech is heavily distorted, it becomes very difficult to interpret. However, once we hear the original, our brains can generally interpret the distorted version much more easily.

The McGurk Effect, meanwhile, involves our brain interpreting human speech based on watching a speaker’s lips. We hear “ba” or “fa” from the same sound clip, depending on the visual we see.

These phenomena are related. We are adjusting an objective depiction of reality to match what we expect from the world. This is an evolutionary strategy: Rather than interpreting every single detail of information we receive, our brains pick and choose in order to both lessen the effort on its processing and account for static and disruption in the input.

This processing relies on the brain’s ability to match partial data with things we already know. It allows for wonderful shortcuts, but it also creates some problems. One is in the area of stereotyping: We are quick to judge people based on superficial details so that we can assess relative risk quickly, but those judgments are often flawed or downright incorrect.

Another area in which our mental shortcutting causes problems is education. It contributes to what has come to be called the “Curse of Knowledge.”

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This term started with the Ph.D. research of Elizabeth Newton at Stanford. She gave “tappers” a list of well-known songs, which are to be tapped out for a “listener.” Even though the songs were generally known to the listeners, they were only able to identify about 2.5% of them. The tappers, for their part, were convinced that they were doing a quality job of tapping out the rhythm of the song, and that there was simply something wrong with the listeners.

Try this yourself, with a partner: Tap out a song like “Happy Birthday” or “Jingle Bells.” You’ll probably have a very clear sense of what song you’re tapping, while your partner will struggle.

This research led to the concept of the “Curse of Knowledge”  where the longer and more deeply we know something, the more difficult it is to imagine what it was like not knowing it.

Most people don’t remember learning their first language. The linguist Noam Chomsky posited a Critical Period for children to acquire language, based at least in portion on the perception that children have an easier time learning a language than adults do. But what if children don’t have as easy of a time as we adults think? If you’re reading this, you’re fluent in English: The curse of knowledge suggests that you don’t remember how difficult it was to learn. Furthermore, unless it’s being converted to speech, you’re literate as well, so you may not remember how difficult it was to learn to read.

The challenge that this curse of knowledge presents to teachers, mentors, parents, and other people seeking to instruct and train others is that things that seem obvious to us might seem so because we have such a deep understanding of them: Students who do not understand won’t see them as so obvious.

Greg Ashman comments that this is “effectively a failure of empathy”: Successful teaching (of any sort) involves stepping into the shoes of someone who doesn’t know. We can’t be tappers: We must be listeners, too.

In his post, Ashman also points out that students, particularly those with low skills, tend to exaggerate their knowledge. This is called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Meanwhile, many skilled people think they’re “faking it”: If things come too easily for them, they assume they’re missing something and that therefore they’re really not very competent after all. This is called Imposter Syndrome.

Together, the Dunning-Kruger effect and Imposter Syndrome mean that many students who understand think they don’t, while many students who don’t understand think they do. Meanwhile, in front of the classroom, there’s a teacher who trusts student assessment because the curse of knowledge obscures the difficulty of the work.

Quite the mess of cognitive biases.

How do we get out of this conundrum? Even if you’re not a professional teacher, there are likely times that you’ll want to teach someone else a skill or knowledge set.

A major step, as Ashman suggests, is to focus on your empathy. Think back about the auditory illusion mentioned at the outset of this article, and how quickly your brain (probably) assimilated the new information. That’s what our brains are designed to do, but we need enough context to do it successfully.

On the flipside, though, it’s also important for teachers and mentors to keep in mind that we might not know things as well as we think we do. For all our knowledge, we are also filling in the gaps through shortcuts and conjectures. Those strawberries aren’t red, but because we know that strawberries are generally red, we fill in the gaps. Our brains register them as red, regardless of reality.

Ultimately, of course, this means that the best role models acknowledge that we are still learning ourselves, and still becoming aware of our own blind spots. One of my personal exercises, for instance, is to read mathematics in a language that I struggle with, such as German. By struggling with material that “should” be elementary for me, I remember what it’s like to not know. This has helped me build that crucial empathy.

As mentors and role models, it is on us to find ways to meet our students where they are.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

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