This Just In: Know-it-alls Know Nothing at All

By: Dave Roos
Folks who are always acting like they know more than you do, usually know less. NBC/Warner BrosClemens Bilan/Getty Images
Folks who are always acting like they know more than you do, usually know less. NBC/Warner BrosClemens Bilan/Getty Images

A team of researchers at Cornell University has confirmed what you've always suspected — people who see themselves as “experts” are much more likely to spout complete bull honky (that's a technical term).

In a 2015 paper published in Psychological Science, the Cornell team looked at overclaiming, the embarrassing act of claiming to know something that doesn't even exist. That's right, not only are you claiming to know something that you definitely don't know, but the very thing that you're claiming to know was never a real thing in the first place.


Who are these “overclaimers"? Not you or me, obviously (nervous laugh), but apparently pretty much everybody else.   

In one of four studies conducted for the paper, 93 percent of self-professed financial experts claimed to know the definition of terms like “pre-rated stocks,” “fixed-rate deductions” and “annualized credit.” In case you're wondering, those are completely bogus.

In another study, even when 49 test subjects were warned that some entries on a list of biology terms were fakes, self-identified biology “experts” were significantly more likely to sling imaginary definitions of phony concepts like “meta-toxins” and “bio-sexual.”

“We generally think that we have access to our knowledge,” says Stav Atir, the lead author of the Cornell study, “that we know what we know and what we don't know. But so much of what we think we know is actually constructed on the spot.”

Some people call that “thinking with your gut.” Others call it B.S.-ing.

So what does this mean? Should we trust the talking heads on TV that claim to be financial or political gurus? Are so-called “experts” blinded by their own confidence, or are they simply “improvising” to avoid looking dumb? A little bit of both, says Atir.

“Overclaiming is a special and extreme type of overconfidence,” Atir explains. “There's no denying that some overclaiming is driven by the desire to not want to appear stupid, what we call ‘impression management.'”

But overclaiming, at its core, isn't about “tricking” others or intentionally lying, she says.

“The mental process is, ‘I'm knowledgeable, therefore I should probably know this,' so we surmise or infer that we know it. Overclaiming appears to be an honest bias. People genuinely believe that they have knowledge of something that's impossible to know.”