Think You Know Everything? You Probably Don’t

A new study from the Association for Psychological Science finds that people who are self-proclaimed experts on a given issue are more likely not to see a potential gap in their knowledge—and will likely offer bad advice as a result.

Here’s a tough one to swallow: That “gut feeling” of yours might just be indigestion.

It’s OK to admit that you have knowledge gaps—everyone has them. And self-proclaimed experts on a specific topic may fall prey to faulty information.

That’s according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The study found that people who are self-taught in certain topics tend to overclaim their knowledge about said topics—a trend that held true in subject areas as diverse as literature, philosophy, finance, and biology.

Self-perceived experts may give bad counsel when they should give none.

The study tested the knowledge of 100 participants in the realm of personal finance, asking them to rate their knowledge of the trade, as well as to explain their knowledge of certain terms. Most of the terms were real; a few, however, were fake.

The self-proclaimed know-it-alls were caught fibbing by attempting to explain what “annualized credit” was.

“Our work suggests that the seemingly straightforward task of judging one’s knowledge may not be so simple, particularly for individuals who believe they have a relatively high level of knowledge to begin with,” Cornell University psychological scientist Stav Atir, one of the study’s authors, said in an association news release.

The researchers point out that people who claim they’re experts in a subject often stop learning new things on that topic.

How does this research affect the association world? Association leaders are often seen as experts and resources on important industry issues. They might then struggle to admit that they don’t know all the ins and outs of a technical topic, leading them to make a big decision without a strong grip on the information.

“Self-perceived experts may give bad counsel when they should give none. For instance, an individual considering a financial decision may consult a friend who expresses confidence in her financial knowledge,” the researchers noted in the study. “That friend may provide inappropriate advice because she fails to recognize her insufficient familiarity with the question. In other words, overclaiming may hinder people from truly achieving a valuable level of genuine knowledge.”

In other words, it’s better to admit you don’t understand the question than give the wrong answer.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!