Knowledge: A Tool or a Curse?

Knowledge: A Tool or a Curse?

By: Lexi Basciano

As a future neuroscientist and educator, nothing grinds my gears more than images depicting a left brain versus right brain ideology. “Take this quiz to find out if you are left-brain dominant (logical) or right-brain dominant (creative)!” I roll my eyes every time. Through my education about language and the brain, I’ve learned that this dichotomy is not scientific and is far from the truth. Every semester I am caught off guard when a student references this left-brain, right-brain ideology. Why is there a student with this misconception in my class every semester and why does this always surprise me? The answer to my students’ confusion and my surprise may be one and the same: the curse of knowledge.

Prior knowledge

Everything we know, everything we’ve learned and experienced about how things relate to each other make up our knowledge base. Mental models, while the definition is fluid and more conceptual, refer to this cumulative knowledge of the environment which we use to predict and understand the world around us (Carley & Palmquist, 1992; Klimoski & Mohammed, 1994). To understand the world, everyone develops personalized mental models based on our own individual experiences, and this is what we use for comparison when we learn something new (Shepardson et al., 2007). The prior knowledge students bring into the classroom is highly variable, and unique to each student.

Everybody uses their own mental models, consciously or not, to guide their learning. Most of the time, mental models are helpful for us to successfully learn and achieve our goals. After all, mental models are what allow us to navigate from home to work, make decisions, and meet our goals every day. However, sometimes our mental models can mislead us. Consider this scene in the popular sitcom The Office. During one of their famous cold-opening scenes, Michael Scott (the manager) bursts into the office and shouts at the top of his lungs: “I declare bankruptcy!” Part of the reason Michael is so funny here is that he mistakenly takes everything literally and believes that bankruptcy is something you literally declare in public and not something that happens more abstractly. Michael’s mistake was pretty obvious, but for students in the classroom, it’s not so obvious when they are misled by their mental models. When a student gets an answer wrong on an exam, we don’t know how they arrived at that answer or where they started.

Imagine you are planning a beach trip on a hot summer day. How would you plan for this trip if the beach was down the street? What if the beach was three hours away? Different starting points require different strategies. The same goes for teaching. As instructors, we are often hyper focused on the destination (material, questions, and exams.) and neglect to consider the students’ starting point (their mental models). For students to really learn, we need to understand their mental models. When a student in our class is struggling to succeed, it may be because their starting point is different from ours. So, if students’ mental models are so important for successful teaching, why are they so often neglected in classrooms? Why do we have this blind spot?

What about your prior knowledge?

Say you are at your friend’s house and your friend puts a piece of chocolate cake in the refrigerator. While your friend leaves to check the mail, you move the cake from the refrigerator to the freezer. When your friend wants to have dessert later, where would they check for the cake? While it may seem obvious to us that they would check in the refrigerator, young children would insist they would check in the freezer because they have prior knowledge of where the cake is. In other words, a child’s prior knowledge makes it difficult for them to understand others’ perspectives. This is because, until about the age of five, children have not yet developed theory of mind. Theory of mind is a social developmental stage when children are aware of the experiences and knowledge of others (Frith & Frith, 2005). When a child reaches this stage of development, they are able to assume what others do and don’t know. Developmental psychologists identified this developmental stage in children by telling them stories similar to the one above (Frith & Frith 2005).

While most adults have had a theory of mind for many years, our ability to understand others’ knowledge is influenced by what we know. This was demonstrated in a famous study (Birch & Bloom, 2007) which sought to investigate whether prior knowledge can lead to false beliefs in adult populations. Participants were told a story about Vicki and Denise. They were told that Vicki hides her violin in the blue box and leaves. While Vicki is away, her sister Denise hides Vicki’s violin in a different box, and then moves the boxes to different locations. One group of participants, the controls, were told Denise moved the violin but were not told which box it was moved to. One experimental group was told Denise hid the violin in the red box. The remaining experimental group was told Denise moved the violin to the purple box. The participants were then asked to estimate the probability that Vicki would check each box first for her violin when she returned. The control group accurately predicted that Vicki would most likely check the blue box because she did not know that Denise had moved her violin. However, the predictions from the experimental groups were biased by the knowledge they were given. The red box group had a stronger prediction that Vicki would check in the red box, even though she hid it in the blue one. Interestingly, the group that was told Denise hid the violin in the purple box predicted Vicki would check in the purple box even though that box is a different color, shape, and in a different location than where she left it. These findings were surprising because we would predict that most adults who have developed theory of mind would predict Vicki would check the blue box; however, the prior knowledge of where Denise hid the violin seemed to lead to false beliefs about Vicki’s knowledge. In other words, this study showed that prior knowledge can impact adults’ ability to understand others’ behavior.

This study has important implications for instructors. Think of all the education you’ve had up until this point. During my own education journey, I’ve taken hundreds of credits, read thousands of papers, and discussed research with professionals in my field, all to build my knowledge base on speech and the brain. Your training and expertise have shaped your mental map tremendously. This is all a part of becoming a professional. Consequently, having more knowledge about a particular subject can lead to a myopic perspective of others’ beliefs, otherwise known as the “curse of knowledge.” Our expertise in a subject can cause us to minimize the difficulties our novice students may be having in our class (Hinds, 1999). As a result, instructors may gloss over topics on which students could have otherwise benefitted from an in-depth explanation. Importantly, if our prior knowledge influences our ability to predict our students’ knowledge, we may miss opportunities to guide false beliefs or flawed mental models.

How can instructors use this awareness of the curse of knowledge to improve their instruction? Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind.

There are no stupid questions! A stupid question from a learner is not stupid. It is an insight that they are using a different mental model. A great way to avoid these issues is to not assume that your students know something.

Don’t be afraid to ask them open-ended questions. After you explain something, ask questions to check comprehension.

Encourage students to elaborate.To really check that students understand, have them write three sentences that summarize what you said.

Acknowledging and exploring students’ mental models can help instructors to figure out where our students’ ideas are coming from. Acknowledging our own “knowledge curse” can help us to understand the shortcomings in our assumptions of what novices know and what they don’t. In reflecting on the left-brain right-brain debacle, I’ve realized that this misconception is important for me to address in my classroom. The left and right hemispheres typically work together to process language through neurological networks. However, these networks can be left or right lateralized, meaning they involve structures primarily in the left or the right hemispheres. Left lateralized language networks support syntactic processing while right lateralized networks support the processing of acoustic features of language that convey meaning like pitch inflection (also known as prosody) (Friederici, 2011). However, the idea that people can be more left-brained (logical) or right-brained (creative) is not based on scientific fact (Corballis, 2014). How can I expect students to grasp the neurobiology of language if they misunderstand the roles of the hemispheres? In my first class, I look forward to fostering discussions of these prominent misconceptions and I look forward to being surprised by what my students know and what they don’t.


  • Birch, S. A. J., & Bloom, P. (2007). The curse of knowledge in reasoning about false beliefs. Psychological Science, 18(5), 382–386.

  • Carley, K., & Palmquist, M. (1992). Extracting, representing, and analyzing mental models. Social Forces, 70(3), 601–636.

  • Corballis, M. C. (2014). Left brain, right brain: facts and fantasies. PLoS Biology, 12(1), e1001767.

  • Friederici, A. D. (2011). The brain basis of language processing: From structure to function. Physiological Reviews, 91(4), 1357-1392.

  • Frith, C., & Frith, U. (2005). Theory of mind. Current Biology, 15(17), R644-R645.

  • Hinds, P. J. (1999). The curse of expertise: The effects of expertise and debiasing methods on prediction of novice performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 5(2), 205-221.

  • Klimoski, R., & Mohammed, S. (1994). Team mental model: Construct or metaphor? Journal of Management, 20(2).

  • Shepardson, D. P., Wee, B., Priddy, M., & Harbor, J. (2007). Students’ mental models of the environment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(2), 327–348.

    Hidden Violin Image Attribution

    Birch, S. A. J., & Bloom, P. (2007). The curse of knowledge in reasoning about false beliefs. Psychological Science, 18(5), 382–386.

Lexi Basciano (B.S.) is a PhD candidate at Arizona State University’s Speech and Hearing Sciences program. Her current research interests involve understanding the neurological underpinnings supporting successful motor control of speech and how these processes are related to our sense of agency. She has a crippling obsession with birds, loves cooking meals for her friends and family and looks forward to watching The Simpsons every night with her loving partner Adam and their charming Boston terrier Jojo.

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