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The Knowledge Trap


Explanations > Learning > The Knowledge Trap

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



When you know something, it can be difficult to remember what it is like not to know it.

This is particularly true for people who learn easily, quickly gaining knowledge and understanding, and equally quickly forgetting what it is like not to know.

In addition, how I know something and the meaning I put on it may be quite different from how others know and create meaning about the same thing. Yet I often assume that others understand in the same way as me.

This leads to problems in communication with others, as when something appears obvious and so a simple explanation seems all that is necessary. It can also result in conclusions that others who do not similarly understand are stupid in some way.

Another interpretation of the phrase 'knowledge trap' is that, in work, being perceived as an 'expert' can result in you being trapped in a role or a job, unable to do other work as either only you can do this work or you are assumed to have only this knowledge and not other knowledge.


A professor, asked by a student to explain a detail from a mathematical lecture, looks confused, repeats exactly the same words and then hurries to catch up to where he should be.

A lawyer explains a point of law to a client using legal language. Within a few words the client is lost. The lawyer shakes her head at the stupidity of ordinary people and reminds herself this is why she is paid so well.

A person who is good at analysis finds that all the analysis work comes in their direction. They are passed over for promotion because they are thought of as just 'the analyst', even though they have many other skills.


We create meaning by recognizing and interpreting what we sense. This is done in a subconscious manner and appears consciously as immediate 'knowing'.

If we are uncertain, then this process of creating meaning can result in ambiguity, with a conclusion that 'it could be this or it could be that'. Worst case, we fail to create meaning and suffer from the attendant confusion and stress. This is an uncomfortable state and so we home in on easy single meanings that become instant 'knowing'.

Learning is the process of turning difficulty in recognizing and understanding into easy knowing.

Another knowledge trap, even if we remember something of how we did not know is to assume that others misunderstood in the same way as us and also learn in the same way. Hence we try to explain in a way that would help us learn but which still leaves others confused.

Good teachers have a particular skill in understanding how their students are not knowing and so providing information that leads them to learn. The trap of knowledge means that many people do not appreciate this skill, which perhaps is one reason why teachers tend not to be valued as perhaps they should.

A similar effect happens in business change, where managers who take a longer time to get their heads around a new business situation and work out what needs to be done, yet then expect others in the business to understand instantly and accept the changes being proposed.

When people get caught in the career knowledge trap, they get classified as 'that type of person', for example a person who is good with spreadsheets gets told they are a 'spreadsheet person' or 'good with numbers' and so does not get to do more creative or language work.

The Knowledge Trap is also known as 'The Curse of Knowledge'.

So what?

In teaching and influencing others, remember that what is obvious to you may not be obvious to them and that they may understand in different ways. Hence spend time finding out how they do not know and then devising ways to move them forward on their path (not yours) of learning.

In building your career (or advising others), deliberately build a broad resumé if you do not want to be trapped in a narrow area. Take on work that demonstrates your breadth as well as depth.

See also



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