SCIENCE SAYS: You Don't Know Nearly as Much as You Claim You Know

In other words, a bunch of scientists just called you a stupid liar.
Publish date:
August 14, 2015

I really want to be a Jeopardy! contestant sometime before I die or become less photogenic. I know at least four people who've made it onto the show, and another whose participation in the most recent online audition test scored her an invitation to the next level, which gives me a weird genuinely-happy-for-you type of envy. (More like Jealousy!, amirite?)

I think I'd do pretty well on the test, but who knows? I'm a very nervous test-taker—lowest SAT score in my family, thankyouverymuch—and even though I'm generally a trivia-night badass, I know I have weak areas, like geography, math, and contemporary country music. My brain is pretty spongy when it comes to a wide range of subjects, and I have editor-level competence in beauty topics, but I wouldn't say I'm an "expert" on anything else.

That's not actually a bad thing, saying I'm not an expert on anything else. It turns out self-proclaimed experts actually have a nasty habit of making asses of themselves, specifically by claiming they know "facts" about their area of expertise that are entirely fictional.

A recent study published in the August issue of the journal Psychological Science described a set of experiments in which Cornell and Tulane researchers tried to better understand a phenomenon called "overclaiming," which is when the more people think they know about a topic, the more likely they are to claim they're familiar with totally made-up information about that topic—finance, for example.

"The more people believed they knew about finances in general, the more likely they were to overclaim knowledge of the fictitious financial terms," psychological scientist Stav Atir explained. So when study participants who rated themselves as financial whizzes were asked if they were familiar with a list of 15 finance terms, they were more likely than those who didn't think so highly of their own financial knowledge to say they knew about the completely fake terms the researchers threw in there: pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, and annualized credit.

"The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography," Atir said.

It's like that Jimmy Kimmel bit where he has an interviewer ask people about news that never actually happened, and the people just go along with it like it totally happened, just to seem knowledgable.

I cringe watching those segments. Why would anyone claim to know something unknowable? Some participants in the study claimed to know nonexistent things even when they were warned there would be some fake information. Is seeming smart really worth the risk of being caught in a truly stupid lie? (Based on this paragraph, I am now a self-proclaimed expert in italicizing.)

The researchers aren't really sure yet.

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

Oooooh, goosebumps.

Interestingly, even when people have access to actual facts, they still overestimate their wisdom. Another recent study (I love me some studies), this time in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, shows that people have an inflated estimate of their intrinsic knowledge when they can use the Internet to find answers.

Yale researchers found that "searching the Internet for explanatory knowledge creates an illusion whereby people mistake access to information for their own personal understanding of the information. Evidence from nine experiments shows that searching for information online leads to an increase in self-assessed knowledge as people mistakenly think they have more knowledge 'in the head.'"

That is some singularity shit right there!

Anyway, the experiments mentioned in that quote from the study's abstract included study participants rating their ability to answer questions like "How does a zipper work?"; some participants were given access to the Internet to search for the answer, and some had to rely on what they already knew. Those who could use the Internet to find answers ultimately rated themselves more capable of explaining answers to questions from a variety of topics unrelated to the original question.

In other words, Googling stuff amplifies our self-assessments of our actual knowledge. The study authors say we don't recognize the extent to which we rely on the Internet for information, and this particular illusion of knowledge (there's that phrase again!) may be especially strong because it's so quick and easy.

And now, of course, I'm paranoid that I've been thinking I'm way smarter than I am, because I'm always the first person to pull out my phone and offer to find an answer when someone has a question or there's a debate to be settled.

But hey, if there's a version of Jeopardy! where I can have access to Google, I can definitely make it on the show.

Have you ever found yourself claiming to know something ridiculously nonexistent? Or feeling smarter because your phone is essentially an extension of your arm? (By the way, you're all experts on these studies now because you found this on the Internet.)