The Curse of Knowledge.


The Curse of Knowledge.

Sage 4101

September 9, 2015 12:00 PM - 1:30 PM

The more you know, the less clearly you write.

That’s a simple way of summing up one of APS Fellow Steven A. Pinker’s key insights on the cognitive and psycholinguistic factors that fuel arcane, awkward prose — including scholarly text.

Pinker, a linguist at Harvard University, discusses this so-called curse of knowledge in his latest book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. During his APS–David Myers Distinguished Lecture on the Science and Craft of Teaching Psychological Science at the APS Annual Convention in New York City he addressed the points he raises in the book.

The curse of knowledge is only one of many writing pitfalls — from excessive clichés to the abuse of passive voice — that Pinker discussed. But it’s one that is especially pertinent to students crafting term papers and scholars submitting research articles to journals — and, for that matter, teachers of psychology because many of the principles of clear and effective writing also apply to teaching. He uses as a paradigm a common theory-of-mind task in which the experimenters invite young children into a lab and hand them a candy box. Expecting to find candy, the children instead find the box contains pencils. Ultimately, the children not only believe that other children entering the lab will expect to find pencils rather than candy in the box, but will say that they themselves knew all along what the box really contained. The children simply can’t reconstruct their prior ignorance about the bag’s contents (Wimmer & Perner, 1983).


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