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The curse of knowledge

Medical professionals often don’t realise that the language and terms they use are not understandable to non-medically trained individuals.
Mindmap in the shape of a brain
© IMPACCT consortium

The previous case may seem an extreme example, as most people are not familiar with astrophysics and the language used to describe it.

However, let’s consider the use of the word diet which is a familiar word used by many people in everyday life. Health professionals may not think that diet can be a problematic word, but many people will associate the word diet to losing weight only, when there are other forms of diet, such as a low-salt diet. Health professionals must be aware of these difficulties. Words may not seem like jargon to health professionals, but can be for patients, just like texts on astrophysics are full of everyday words if you are an astrophysicist.

Unlike the video clip, which sounds like it could be John Cleese using scientific language but is complete nonsense, the computational astrophysics text is understandable to those with a knowledge of computational astrophysics.

The curse of knowledge

One reason that health professionals use medical jargon is that to them it is everyday language that they are very familiar with. Once we know and use something, like medical jargon, it is hard to imagine not knowing and understanding it. If you know something very well and are very familiar with it, it can become difficult to realise / remember that others don’t.

This has been referred to as the curse of knowledge. The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias that occurs when an individual, communicating with other individuals, unknowingly assumes that the others have the background to understand.

You may have come across this bias while working through the step Consideration of accessing healthcare services. You probably access healthcare where you live, if not regularly then often enough to be familiar with how to do it. You ‘just know’. In another setting and context (such as another country, culture, language, and health system) you don’t.

Tappers and listeners

This idea of knowing was demonstrated in an experiment known as Tappers and Listeners – watch the video and read the short explanation in Be wary of the curse of knowledge.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

How does the experiment of the Tappers and Listeners relate to communication between healthcare professional and patients? And what can we learn from the experiments’ result to improve this communication in practice?

© IMPACCT consortium
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Working with Patients with Limited Health Literacy

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