Pac-Man and the curse of knowledge

~ 3 min read | Category: Newsletters

I’ve always had a passion for performing comedy.

At school I was that kid always trying to make his friends laugh.

Later, at university, I dabbled in a few different comedy groups…

Sketch comedy with the Cambridge Footlights. Improvised comedy with Edinburgh’s “Improverts”.

(I even performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a few times, which was a blast.)

But until recently those antics felt like the distant past.

However, I just started doing “improv” again with a local theatre group that runs drop-in sessions.

It was exhilarating to exercise those muscles again but, boy, did I feel rusty!

And in one scene I was playing an “endowment game” (improv terminology alert!) with another performer.

An endowment game is where you have a piece of information the other person lacks and you drop enough subtle hints during your conversation for them to work out what it is.

(Party Quirks is the most famous example, where a clueless party host has to guess specific foibles given secretly to three guests.)

In this case, I was a customer returning an item to a shop but the shop assistant didn’t know what the item was. And the suggestion I’d been given was “Pac-Man Ghost.”

Yes, I was an unhappy customer returning a Pac-Man Ghost to the shop.

So I started by complaining that my purchase wasn’t scary enough.

Then I talked about the busy day I’d had running around a maze, popping pills and being chased by bad guys.

But none of my clues were landing with the other person.

Finally I accused them of discriminating against me because of my appearance --- after all I was just “a big yellow head with a huge mouth”.

Still absolutely nada.

It turned out the other improviser had never heard of Pac-Man.

They weren’t just unfamiliar with the classic video game, but they’d literally had never seen or heard those two words placed next to each other.

And my entire strategy had been based around the idea that everyone knows who Pac-Man is.

I made an assumption about what my “audience” knew and I was totally wrong.

The technical name for this is the curse of knowledge. It’s assuming someone else knows something just because you do.

And if you want to create a course someday, the curse of knowledge is a big problem. If your course makes the wrong assumptions about what your students know they’ll quickly decide they bought the wrong course.

So what’s the cure?

Find a few opportunities to mix with your target audience and discover what they know, talk and care about first.

You can do it by joining free groups online, like on Facebook or Reddit.

Or by reaching out to people in your network and asking for just 5 or 10 minutes to pick their brains.

Be curious. Ask questions. Gently test your assumptions.

Not only will it help you create a course that’s better aligned with what your audience knows. It’ll be much better aligned with what they need too.

See you soon,


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