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Self-proclaimed ‘experts’ more likely to fall for made-up facts, study finds

"Uh, duh, of course I've heard of pre-rated stocks." (iStock)
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If you consider yourself an expert in something or another, you might want to stop pretending you understand things you've never heard of. In a new study, researchers found that self-proclaimed "experts" in a topic were more likely than others to profess knowledge of terms that were actually made up for the purpose of the study.

If you watch Jimmy Kimmel Live, you've already seen this effect in action:

In the new study, which was published this week in the journal Psychological Science, researchers from Cornell University and Tulane University sought to catch test subjects in the act of "overclaiming" — that thing where you nod in agreement and say "oh, yeah, totally" when someone asks if you know about something you've never heard of.

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One portion of the study presented 100 subjects — all of whom had been asked to rate their knowledge of personal finances — with 15 specific finance terms. They were then asked to rate their understanding of each term, not knowing that three of them (pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit) were totally made up.

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

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Even when they had fair warning — in another experiment, subjects were told that some terms would be made up — those who considered themselves experts were still more likely to profess knowledge of fake terms.

To strengthen their conclusion that it was self-perceived expertise driving these embarrassing flubs, the researchers designed another experiment where participants were split into three groups. The first received an easy geography quiz, boosting their confidence and leading to higher rates of self-proclaimed expertise on the subject. One group took no such quiz, and the last group took an incredibly difficult quiz — one designed to convince them they were not, in fact, experts in geography.

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Sure enough, when asked to rate their familiarity with various cities in the United States, those who'd taken the easiest quiz — the one that made them feel like geography whiz-kids — were more likely to claim knowledge of non-existent towns.

According to the researchers, the big takeaway from the study should be that many of us may actually stop learning about a subject when we start to consider ourselves experts. We're so insecure about our self-proclaimed expertise that we're afraid of being exposed to things we don't yet know. That's obviously a bummer — you're not doing yourself any favors by building yourself up to be an "expert" who's above learning new things. And according to these findings, you might end up embarrassing yourself, too.

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