The Power of Head and Heart to Affect Change

Head and heart is a powerful combination to affect positive change. When I first saw my good friend Andrew Winston give a keynote address on the topic of sustainability, I was struck by the equally strong intellectual and passionate elements of his speaking style. His message energized me and I am still working on what I can do to help scientists ‘move the needle’ on addressing environmental mega-challenges. As Valentine’s Day recently reminded me, there are head and heart components to romantic love. The ability to share on both an intellectual and emotional level with another human being is powerful stuff that makes for a fulfilling relationship. As I have written about previously, there are also head and heart elements to effective collaboration ( In this post, I explore how to overcome ‘curse of knowledge’ which also has head and heart elements.

This post was also inspired by the keynote I delivered at the National Biodiesel Board’s annual meeting last month ( In this keynote I mentioned ‘curse of knowledge’ as one of the sources of narrow thinking (see The solution to narrow thinking is broadened thinking which you really can’t do alone. This post will first describe what ‘curse of knowledge’ is and then look at how empathy, ladder of abstraction, and collaboration can help address the ‘curse of knowledge.’

I first heard the ‘curse of knowledge’ concept at a Bayer training class on ‘Better Writing’ delivered by Don Moyer of Thoughtform Inc ( I realized then that ‘curse of knowledge’ is a force that makes it hard for a technology-driven company or industry to practice broadened thinking. As a trained chemical engineer, I love technology. As a 25-year corporate veteran of Bayer, the ‘science for a better life’ company, I saw first-hand the damage that ‘curse of knowledge’ can do.

Let me first illustrate the ‘curse of knowledge’ with a frequently cited simple experiment that a Stanford University graduate psychology student named Elizabeth Newton did in 1990. Elizabeth assigned people to one of two roles: ‘tapper’ or ‘listener.’ Each ‘tappe’ was asked to pick a well-known song, such as ‘Happy Birthday,’ and tap out the rhythm on a table. The ‘listener’s’ job was to name that tune.

Before the ‘tapper’ tapped out the song, they were asked to predict the probability that the ‘listener’ would guess the song. The ‘tapper’ said 50% or 1 in 2. The data said 2.5% or 1 in 40. When the ‘tapper’ taps, she is hearing the tune playing along to the taps. Meanwhile, all the ‘listener’ can hear is a weird Morse code. The problem is that once we know something, in this case the melody of a song, we find it hard to imagine not knowing it. In other words, our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. We have difficulty sharing this knowledge with others, because we can’t easily influence their state of mind. Curse of knowledge is really about failure to get outside of your own head so you can get inside the head of the person you are trying to influence.

Now back to my former employer Bayer, “curse of knowledge” prevented our scientists from taking effective action when the safety of a chemical ingredient known is bisphenol-A or BPA was being questioned. Our scientists knew and understood the science that made the claims against this ingredient illogical but “curse of knowledge” got in the way of the scientists responding effectively to these claims. By the time the false claims had spread to mass media including “People” magazine, it was too late to turn the tide. The company was forced to abandon the impacted portion of the business as a result.

The company now uses communication and marketing specialists at the first sign of public product safety concerns. These specialists work with the scentists to develop programs to effectively engage consumers and dispel “bad science.”

Now let’s take a look at how empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, can help address the ‘curse of knowledge.’ The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stonybrook University ( is having success teaching empathy to health professionals as a way to avoid the trappings of ‘curse of knowledge.’ Elizabeth Bass (former health and science journalist and current director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University) and Evonne Kaplan-Liss (a pediatrician and preventive medicine specialist, a member of the Alda Center steering committee, and director of the Graduate Certificate in Health Communications at Stony Brook Medicine) report that workshops using games inspired by improvisational theater are helping health professionals tap into empathy for communicating with patients ( For example, an outpatient anesthesiologist shared the following after participating in the workshop:

Previously, I would ask the patient if they ‘did okay with anesthesia’ and would immediately proceed into what they could expect. I felt like I was doing well because of the detail I was providing; who else spent the time doing that? (Aren’t I wonderful?). Now I say, ‘I’m your anesthesia doctor and I’m here to keep you safe and comfortable.’ The patients visibly relax when I tell them this—and only then do I discuss the specifics. I believe I’m serving my patients so much better.

The Alan Alda center focuses in on the kinds of questions that an empathic communicator asks before communicating and the type of language an empathic communicator uses. For example, Alan Alda tells a workshop participant in an informational video ‘we learn by hooking into something we already know’ in order to convince the participant to stop using words that the audience will not understand.

Now let’s look at how a tool called the ‘ladder of abstraction’ can help address the ‘curse of knowledge.’ In their book ‘Made to Stick’ (, Chip and Dan Heath explain that ‘the difference between an expert and a novice is the ability to think abstractly.’ The Heath brothers go on to say the following:

Novices perceive concrete details as concrete details. Experts perceive concrete details as symbols of patterns and insights that they have learned through years of experience. And, because they are capable of seeing a higher level of insight, they naturally want to talk on a higher level. They want to talk about chess strategies, not about bishops moving diagonally.

Therefore, experts fall into the trap of the ‘curse of knowledge’ when they talk on the same high level that they are capable of seeing insight. Entrepreneur Nicholas Reeses says ‘No matter how hard you try, you can never escape the curse of knowledge; you just have to be aware of it’ ( So when you see that look of confusion indicating that you have entered the ‘curse of knowledge’ zone, one way to help navigate is to apply the ladder of abstraction. The ladder of abstraction is a tool I learned about in a course called ‘Igniting Creative Potential’ by the Creative Problem Solving Group ( If you are the expert and the person you are talking to is a novice on the topic, then chances are the novice is confused because you are talking too abstractly. To address this and get more concrete, apply the question ‘how’ to the comment you just made and answer in the next comment. Continue applying the question ‘how’ until you make a connection with the novice. The ladder works the other way too. If someone talking to you presents a situation that is too concrete for your expertise to help them, then ask them why they would want to do that. Repeat the why question as needed to get them to a level of abstraction that you can best work with.


Finally, let’s look at how collaboration can help address the ‘curse of knowledge.’ Chip and Dan Heath also present in their book ‘Made to Stick’ a principled approach called SUCCESs for creating a successful idea. They provide tools and techniques to apply the SUCCESs recipe in order to create an idea that will stick. The tools and techniques are presented such that any given individual can apply them. However, the SUCCESs recipe can also be used as a framework for a collaboration session. Imagine working with a diverse representation of your target audience for an idea or business need you would like to shape into a concept that will stick. Not only will the collaboration approach help reduce the idea or business need to practice but it will help produce a core message that will lead to targeted action to achieve the desired results. Talk about powerful!

If you would like to learn more about getting beyond ‘curse of knowledge’ and other forms of limited thinking to great results through collaboration at your organization or for your project, then contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or Ask about the first-time client offer.