The Knowledge Gap Theory and Why It Matters to You

As discussed in a previous blog, heuristics, or mental shortcuts, help us make sense of the world. These shortcuts help our brains muddle through information-processing problems like:

  • Information overload
  • Constructing meaning from mountains of information
  • Making quick decisions
  • How to know what needs to be remembered.

The problem with many of these mental shortcuts is that they tend to leave “cognitive holes”, or gaps in our knowledge, as the brain aims for efficiency.

There are two types of knowledge gaps:

  • In our quest to make sense of all the incoming stimulus, we have an inherent need to construct meaning from bits of information in order to survive: what’s important, what’s relevant, what’s urgent. We attempt to connect the dots and fill any gaps with stuff we already think we know. When we have information about a specific thing that belongs to a group of things we’re more familiar with, our brain has no problem filling in the gaps with best guesses or with other information from trusted sources (friends, family). We fill in characteristics from stereotypes, generalities, and prior experiences whenever new information arrives or there are gaps in our information. The trouble is, the information we use to fill in these gaps can be incomplete, or even worse, completely wrong.


  • In 1970, P.A. Tichenor, G.A. Donohue, and C.N. Olien, a team of communication and sociology professors at the University of Minnesota, defined the knowledge gap as follows: “As the infusion of mass media information into a social system increases, higher socioeconomic status segments tend to acquire this information faster than lower socioeconomic status population segments. Hence, the gap in knowledge between the two tends to increase rather than decrease.” Simply put, knowledge, like other forms of wealth, is often unequally, while not always deliberately, distributed throughout a social system.

Tichenor et al. outlined the five reasons knowledge gaps exist[1]:

  1. Communication skills: People with a higher socioeconomic status generally have more education, which improves their reading, comprehension, and memory skills.
  2. Stored information: People with higher socioeconomic status are more likely to already be aware of topics in the news through previous media exposure or through formal education.
  3. Relevant social contact: People with higher socioeconomic status generally have a broader sphere of activity, greater number of reference groups and interpersonal contacts and are thus more likely to discuss news topics with others.
  4. Selective exposure: People with lower socioeconomic status may be less interested, and therefore less likely, to expose themselves to certain news topics.
  5. Media target markets: Media outlets cater to the tastes and interests of their audience.

The two types of knowledge gaps can co-exist and both come down to one common outcome: “Gaps in understanding are those places where the cultural models employed by the public to think about an issue differ significantly from experts’ understanding of the same issue.”[2]

As a Canadian farmer, you’ve no doubt experienced a ‘gap’ situation where either 1) a non-expert proceeded to tell you everything about your industry because a family friend filled them in on how it all works; 2) people accepting myths as facts simply due to a lack of or erroneous information available to fill those knowledge gaps; 3) as a subject matter expert, your understanding of a particular agriculture or agri-food issue was vastly different from a non-expert’s.

How can we fill these “cognitive holes” for clearer understanding and more productive conversations that will move the industry forward to the benefit of both farmer and consumer?

Survival Tip

Typically, when trying to convince a listener (or reader) about an issue, we tend to concentrate on sharing black and white facts. After all, they’re scientifically verifiable and evidence based, right? First, though, your audience must realize they need these facts.

Enter, curiosity.

Curiosity happens when we feel a gap in our knowledge. To convince people they need your information/message, you need to first highlight some specific knowledge they’re missing. One way to do so is to pose a question or puzzle that confronts people with a gap in their knowledge. Interest is consequently generated since ‘ah-ha’ moments are more impactful if preceded by ‘hunh?’ moments. Try using metaphors and analogies to frame your information in a memorable way.

(One caveat: If people believe they know everything it’s hard to make the gap theory work. See also the Curse of Knowledge.)

Tichenor and et al. identified three variables that weaken the knowledge gap:

  1. Level of basic social concern aroused by the issue – Local issues that directly implicated the community tended to arouse greater social concern than national issues that did not implicate the community. Local issues, then, tended to decrease the magnitude of the knowledge gap.
  2. Level of social conflict surrounding the issue – Up to the point at which a communication breakdown occurred, issues with more perceived conflict tended to draw more attention and thus decrease the magnitude of the knowledge gap.
  3. Level of homogeneity of the community – Because smaller, more homogeneous communities tend to exhibit less social differentiation and variety in sources of information than larger, more heterogeneous communities, homogeneous communities tended to exhibit smaller knowledge gaps than heterogeneous communities.

Therefore, try framing your messages on a local level, maybe add a little drama to your message (but remember to include the solution to the conflict issue as part of your messaging), and learn how to get your audience to think less ‘us versus them’ and more ‘all us’.

And in an ironic turn of events, all that ‘mass media’ that created the initial knowledge gap is now accessible to everyone, the world over, thanks to social media. In 2010, Elizabeth Corley and Dietram Scheufele determined that “the internet may finally live up to the hype … as a tool for creating a more informed citizenry by serving as a ‘leveler’ of knowledge gaps.”[3] Written in layman’s terms, this widely available content is created by individuals who not only have the expertise to present the information, but are aware that when writing for such a medium the language must be tailored towards a more general audience. Corley and Scheufele found that internet use helped those with less formal education to catch up to their counterparts.

Take advantage of the power and reach of social media to share your expert insight , relevant stories, and debunk myths to help close potentially harmful gaps in knowledge and help cultivate better farm to consumer conversations.




[1] Tichenor, P.A.; Donohue, G.A.; Olien, C.N. (1970). “Mass media flow and differential growth in knowledge”. Public Opinion Quarterly. 34 (2): 159–170. doi:10.1086/267786.

[2] Bales, S.N,. Sweetland, J., & Volmert, A. How to Talk About Oceans and Climate Change: A FrameWorks MessageMemo. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.

[3] Corley, E. A., & Scheufele, D. A. (forthcoming). Outreach gone wrong? When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist.

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