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Blinded by our expertise: how to avoid the curse of knowledge

Expertise can be an incredibly powerful thing. It is through the accumulation of knowledge that can often help us excel in our careers, gaining us status and respect from our peers. It helps us to make quick decisions, and allows us to give insight that others may not have.

But as much as knowledge can help us to perform, can it also be the thing that trips us up?

A Taste of Expertise

In 1998, researchers decided to put the knowledge of a group of sommeliers to the test. Would their expertise really shine through when asked to taste test a number of wines?

In the first part of the study, the sommeliers had to write their tasting notes on a red wine and white wine. In line with what was expected, they described the red using words like plump, dark, cherry, fruit, and spice – all traditionally used to describe red wines. Meanwhile, the white wine got reviewed as golden, floral, pale, lively, and lemon – again, much in line with what we would expect.

So far so good for the experts.

In the second part of this study, the sommeliers received two more glasses of wine. Again, the researchers got them to write down their tasting notes… 

However, this time there was a twist. Whilst it appeared that the sommeliers were once again tasting a red wine and a white wine, the second round of tasting actually involved two glasses of the same white wine. The only difference was that one of the glasses contained a drop of red food dye. 

So what happened? 

Much to the researchers’ surprise, every one of the 54 sommeliers described the ‘fake’ red wine using “red wine words”. They described it as full-bodied, plump, and fruity. What’s more, not one of the unexpecting experts said that the wines now tasted similar! The sommeliers had all been fooled by a simple drop of food dye. 

Does this mean that wine experts have been having us on all these years? Not quite…

The researchers in this study put these findings down to quite a common phenomenon called “perceptive expectation”. The wine experts were prioritising visual information to come to their conclusions. Through years of training, they had learnt to associate wine of a red colour with a particular taste. Any information that then disconfirmed this association was written off; and the sommeliers genuinely believed they were tasting an authentic red wine. They had fallen foul of the curse of knowledge…

Escaping the curse of knowledge

But what has all this got to do with performance?

Like we learnt in Pete’s blog The dangers of defaults and how to avoid them”, mental shortcuts can be incredibly useful to us. But they are also a source of error. 

If we hold expertise in a particular area, we’re much more likely to become blinded by our knowledge and expectations. We might prioritise certain sources of information when making key decisions. Rather than opening our eyes to evidence that may challenge our beliefs, we unintentionally ignore it to save on mental effort.

This doesn’t just happen in the world of wine tasting. We see this happening across all walks of life. From healthcare to business, and politics to sport. We are all vulnerable to making judgements based on what we expect to be true, even if everything else points towards a different conclusion. 

The message here is that it is very easy to write off certain sources of information – particularly if it goes against our assumptions or comes from someone who we perceive to possess less knowledge than ourselves. However, by acknowledging our biases and surrounding ourselves with people who will check and challenge our thinking, we can gain new insight on the situations we encounter. 

It is often the brains of those we perceive to be “non-experts” that can give us the vital insight needed to make better decisions. This applies for both individuals and teams. By valuing the observations of those outside of our domain of work, it can help us to succeed.

So next time you find yourself making a judgement call based on experience, remember those 54 sommeliers who fell foul to their assumptions all those years ago. Take the time to check and challenge your beliefs before you proceed. You may just find it makes the all-important difference in avoiding the curse of knowledge.

This blog was written by Liam Burnell, a member of our behavioural science team.