The Curse of Knowledge
Wednesday May 18th, 2016
By Andrew Kleine, City Budget Director
The term "curse of knowledge" was coined in the Journal of Political Economy by economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Martin Weber. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that leads better-informed parties to find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed parties.
I learned about the curse of knowledge from the book “Made to Stick” by Chip and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers explain that the more you know about a subject, the more difficulty you have communicating clearly about that subject to people outside of your field. Experts have long forgotten what it is like to not know anything about their specialty. As a result, they tend to speak to laypeople in what sounds like a foreign language. To make matters worse, they can’t help but share way more information than their audience can begin to process. “Made to Stick” is all about how to break the curse of knowledge with simple, concrete language.
When it comes to Baltimore’s budget, I suffer from the curse of knowledge – big time. One example of what I mean is the Citizens’ Guide to the Budget. When I first published the Guide for the Fiscal 2010 budget, it was a pocket-size pamphlet with some basic facts about revenues and spending, budget highlights, and the budget process. By Fiscal 2015, it had doubled in size and was stuffed with 26 pages of budget arcana only a true wonk would appreciate – everything from pension cost trends to fiscal indicators to performance data, with some facts about the capital budget thrown in for good measure.
I was proud of the Fiscal 2015 Guide – so informative! Then along came Kirsten Silveira, one of the bright Millennials on my staff, to burst my bubble. She asked me point blank, “Who reads this thing?” That question made me realize that I had designed the Guide for me, based on what I think everyone should know and be interested in about the city’s budget. I had not tried to put myself in the head of a curious citizen who is learning about the budget for the first time.
Kirsten convinced me to think about the Guide differently and showed me examples of reports from other cities that are part of the Association of Government Accountants’ Citizen-Centric Reporting program. The result is the Fiscal 2016 Citizens’ Guide to the Budget, which is available online by clicking here. The 2016 Guide is just four pages long and uses colorful infographics to highlight what the city accomplished last year, how we are doing on our priority outcomes and ten-year financial plan, and what’s in the Fiscal 2016 budget.
Stripping down the Guide to its bare essentials was hard for me. Letting go of all those hefty charts, graphs and bullets was worse than the Cabbage Soup Diet. My hope is that the new Guide will actually be read by citizens and will whet their appetites for more information, which they will find readily available at budget.baltimorecity.gov. On our website, citizens can drill into budget data, review the progress of every financial plan initiative, learn about the city’s fiscal condition, and much more.
Breaking the curse of knowledge required a hairpin turn in how I communicate about the budget. The irony of it all is that getting my message across more effectively comes down to three little words that Baltimore’s agency heads have heard come out of my mouth a million times: less is more.