Science Finally Proves Know-It-Alls Know Nothing

Have you ever had to put up with someone who once took a weekend course at the community center in financial planning and now acts more like Donald Trump than Donald Trump when it comes to investing?  Or someone who got a general arts degree with “emphasis on polis ci” and now tries to explain world government every time the news mentions political instability?  We probably all know at least one self-professed expert in something or other who actually has a barely working knowledge of the subject they claim to be a superstar in.  And now a study out of Cornell and Tulane Universities has outed those people for the halfwits they kind of seem to be.  Allow me to explain because I am an expert in this article I just read and will now reiterate for you.

Participants in the study were asked to rate their knowledge of personal finance and then given 15 financial terms.  Three terms were just pulled right from the asses of those conducting the study, they meant nothing and had no relation to anything in actual finance.  Study participants were then asked to rate how well they understood each of the 15 terms.

The people who considered themselves experts, not because they had an actual education in the subject, they just felt they’d mastered it in life, were more likely to overclaim knowledge, which is the term you use to describe when you pretend to know something you really know jack about.  Most of us do this to avoid boring conversations – someone starts telling you about subprime mortgages and you just nod and say “of course” for fear they’re going to tell you even more, and hope they don’t call you on what you don’t actually know.  But some people do it because they just hate to seem like they don’t know something and want to show off.  Oh yeah, I know all about particle physics. I worked at Subway for a semester.

The same result was achieved for a variety of subjects beyond finances including geography and philosophy.  Just imagine how often this occurs on the internet in comments sections and message boards where someone Googles a topic, skims the Wikipedia page for said topic, and then comments as though they did a PhD dissertation on the subject.

Worse than experts pretending to know things is the fact that they would still do it when they were told some of the terms were made up.  Even if a pretend expert knows they’re going to be tricked, they will still overclaim knowledge on the trick answers.

In an effort to demonstrate it wasn’t just every day bravado making people act this way, another part of the test was devised to lump people into different categories.  Three groups were made, one given an extremely easy geography test to help convince participants that they were geography masters and boost their confidence, a control group did nothing and a third group got a super hard, brain-shaming geography quiz to prove that no, you don’t know jack about geography and you’re an expert in nothing except sucking hard at geography.

When the three groups were then asked to rate their familiarity with a list of American towns, the ones who took the easy quiz were the most likely to claim knowledge of towns that were just made up for the test. 

In a nutshell, this study proves that the more you think you know, the less you actually want to know.  You brain stops accepting new knowledge, almost like you’re afraid of discovering you don’t know everything.  So once you think you’ve mastered a subject you just stop learning about it totally and aren’t really open to the idea of learning new things or admitting you don’t know things on that subject.  This was the kind of stuff Socrates warned us about back in the day – true knowledge is knowing you know nothing ( I majored in Philosophy so I’m an expert in knowing nothing).  If you’re not open to always learning new things, you’re mostly just going to prove you’re an idiot.

Why would our brains even allow us to do something like this – insecurity probably plays a large role in it.  If you consider yourself an expert, then any knowledge outside of what you have tests that idea and puts it in jeopardy.  And unless you’re willing to be humbled by your own shortcomings, which realistically everyone has and should be fine with, you’re going to defiantly claim you have no shortcomings, even if it means being outed as a bit of a fool.

So remember this next time you post a message online and somewhere in the replies you get the old “actually, I’m a neurosurgeon and what you said is wrong…” reply.  That expert may for real be an expert.  Maybe.  But also probably not.