Study Confirms That Know-It-Alls Actually Know Less

That friend of yours who is convinced they are a genius among fools is more likely to be an ignorant doofus. Daniel M Ernst/Shutterstock

Confirming what frustrated rationally minded folks have long suspected, a duo of psychological researchers have shown that people who think they are the smartest person in the room are often quite the opposite.

Writing in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Michael Hall and Kaitlin Raimi tested whether individuals with a high level of “belief superiority” – the thought that your opinion is more correct than others’ – truly have superior knowledge on the issues at hand.


Their investigation builds upon recent darkly comedic studies that have found, unsurprisingly, that when it comes to politics, people who report the most certainty that their knowledge is correct – “belief confidence” – are the most likely to be ignorant.

Agreeing that hotly divisive modern American politics are the perfect fodder for this type of research, Hall and Raimi chose to evaluate participants using online surveys on five controversial issues: income inequality, the size of the federal government, terrorism, the economy and jobs, and gun control. They recruited six study groups, totaling 2,573 diverse adult Americans, and tasked them with describing the degree to which they felt their fact-based views were superior. The participants' knowledge was then tested with a series of multiple-choice questions.  

“The present research investigated whether people who express belief superiority can justify it with superior knowledge. Across six studies, we found little evidence to support that claim,” the authors concluded.

“On the other end of the belief superiority spectrum, the most modest participants in our studies (i.e., those who identified as low in belief superiority) extended this modesty to their perceived knowledgeability by consistently underestimating their issue-specific knowledge.”

The findings, like many other studies, further support the famous Dunning-Kruger effect: a psychology concept, first coined in 1999, that describes how individuals with low cognitive abilities believe they have greater competence and knowledge than they actually possess because they don’t have the higher-level of self-awareness necessary to realize that there are things beyond their reach. Individuals of high cognitive ability, on the other hand, routinely undersell their skills because they are able to reflect on their own brain’s limitations.


And in line with models of confirmation bias, several of the group’s experiments also showed that participants with poor political knowledge ignored information sources that would have expanded their awareness. After completing a survey, some participants were asked to select, based on headlines, which news articles they would like to read.  The authors’ analysis showed that individuals with higher belief superiority were more likely to choose headlines that were congruent with their beliefs.

Yet, presenting a sliver of hope for the human race, the authors assessed whether or not telling participants with high belief superiority that their scores on the knowledge quizzes were poor would affect their headline choices. A modest number did indeed choose to expose themselves to new information.

[H/T: BPS Research Digest]


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