Self-proclaimed experts more vulnerable to the illusion of knowledge

Self-proclaimed experts more vulnerable to the illusion of knowledge

New research reveals that the more people think they know about a topic in general, the more likely they are to allege knowledge of completely made-up information and false facts, a phenomenon known as "overclaiming." The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"Our work suggests that the seemingly straightforward task of judging one's may not be so simple, particularly for individuals who believe they have a relatively high level of knowledge to begin with," says psychological scientist Stav Atir of Cornell University, first author on the study.

To find out why people make these spurious claims, Atir and colleagues David Dunning of Cornell University and Emily Rosenzweig of Tulane University designed a series of experiments testing people's self-perceived knowledge, comparing it to their actual expertise.

In one set of experiments, the researchers tested whether individuals who perceived themselves to be experts in personal finance would be more likely to claim knowledge of fake financial terms.

One hundred participants were asked to rate their general knowledge of , as well as their knowledge of 15 specific finance terms. Most of the terms on the list were real (for example, Roth IRA, inflation, home equity), but the researchers also included three made-up terms (pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit).

As expected, people who saw themselves as financial wizards were most likely to claim expertise of the bogus finance terms.

"The more people believed they knew about finances in general, the more likely they were to overclaim knowledge of the fictitious financial terms," Atir says. "The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography."

"For instance," Atir explains, "people's assessment of how much they know about a particular biological term will depend in part on how much they think they know about biology in general."

In another experiment, the researchers warned one set of 49 participants that some of the terms in a list would be made up. Even after receiving the warning, the self-proclaimed experts were more likely to confidently claim familiarity with fake terms, such as "meta-toxins" and "bio-sexual."

To confirm that people's self-perceived expertise was driving their overclaiming, the research team manipulated participants' sense of knowledge mastery through a geography quiz. Participants were randomly assigned to complete either an easy quiz on iconic US cities, a difficult quiz on very obscure places, or no quiz. Those participants who had completed the easy quiz felt like experts, and reported that they were more knowledgeable about geography in general than those individuals in the other two groups.

The participants then rated their familiarity with a list of real—and a few completely fake—US cities.

In all three conditions people recognized the real locations, such as Philadelphia and the National Mall. Ironically, those people who had taken the easy quiz, and concluded they were more knowledgeable about US geography, were more likely than the other two groups to claim they were knowledgeable about non-existent locations, such as Cashmere, Oregon.

The research team warns that a tendency to overclaim, especially in self-perceived experts, may actually discourage individuals from educating themselves in precisely those areas in which they consider themselves knowledgeable—leading to potentially disastrous outcomes.

For example, failure to recognize or admit one's knowledge gaps in the realm of finance or medicine could easily lead to uninformed decisions with devastating consequences for individuals.

"Continuing to explore when and why individuals overclaim may prove important in battling that great menace—not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge," the research team concludes.


Explore further

'Learned' people easily may claim facts impossible to know

More information: Psychological Science, pss.sagepub.com/content/early/ … 97615588195.abstract
Journal information: Psychological Science

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Jul 20, 2015
The concept of "overclaiming" is exactly what I think has been permeating through astrophysics and cosmology. The immense amount of knowledge gained through Einstein led to an overwhelming eagerness to force answers without a proper investigation. The assumptions have required faith in unobservable entities and forces with the creations of dark matter and dark energy.

Jul 20, 2015
This is TV's finest moments. All these experts interviewed when an event arises. The perfect disaster was demonstrated leading to the war in Iraq and the financial breakdown. Every expert knew everything about the subjects without educating themselves on what was obvious facts. And, it (illusion of knowledge) remains the most popular theme of our days.

Jul 20, 2015
The concept of "overclaiming" is exactly what I think has been permeating through astrophysics and cosmology. The immense amount of knowledge gained through Einstein led to an overwhelming eagerness to force answers without a proper investigation. The assumptions have required faith in unobservable entities and forces with the creations of dark matter and dark energy.


Did you read this article at all? The studies focus on made-up terms to see if people would claim to have knowledge in a non-existent field. "Dark matter" and "dark energy" are existing terms that can be seen as "placeholders" for real phenomena that scientists acknowledge to know little about, because they might not be fully explained by existing theories.

Jul 20, 2015
Self-proclaimed experts more vulnerable to the illusion of knowledge

Ain't that the truth.

A way to counteract this is to continually keep up in your field and put your own knowledge to the test on occasion (with real, quantifiable results).

Jul 20, 2015
This is why developing expertise -- on controversial subjects, at least -- requires running claims. The real problem is when people think they can understand a complex subject without a comprehensive survey of rebuttals, and that problem is just as common amongst academics as laypeople.

Jul 21, 2015
We studied the illusion of knowledge and over-claiming in fields of expertise 40 years ago in college and I already knew everything about it, so this article wasn't very helpful.

Jul 21, 2015
"Fixed Rate Deduction" is part of UK tax law and is not a fictitious term.
"annualized credit" received 8,290 hits on google...too many for a fictitious phrase.
"pre-rated stocks" is fictitious and the only google hits are back to this article and its mirrors.

The 'experts' who formulated the experiment failed to exercise the advantage that the educated traditionally have over the amateur, that is to do proper research. If you have ever seen a UK tax form for small business then you will have seen the term "Fixed Rate Deduction" and probably added data to that field.

This attempt to reveal the shortcomings of self declared experts also reveals the shortcomings of experts determined by correctly answering more than half the questions on an exam paper...overestimation of actual abilities...

Jul 21, 2015
I don't think this general sort of thing is limited to 'experts' lol. I think the issue could be called a kind of arrogance I call this area 'knowledge management', consider attention to it a vital part of self awareness. A critical component is you not only welcome finding out and admitting you are wrong (not a typical trait of course), but you actively critically review your knowledge. 'Know what you know and what you don't'. This has yet to catch on widely lol. Such vigilance can ironically make one appear unsure and less knowledgeable. i think 'Confident and wrong' is often received better than 'careful', and this may 'encourage' this problem. It consumes more mental resources, requires a balance, has it's risks to your image and confidence. But you are more often wrong without it.

Jul 26, 2015
Not much point really in discussing the findings of this article since the article does not contain statistics as to the degree of difference. That might be statistically significant but of no practical significance.

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