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Study: Subject experts have tendency to "overclaim" false information

"Our work suggests that the seemingly straightforward task of judging one's knowledge may not be so simple," said study author Stav Atir.

By Brooks Hays
Study: Subject experts have tendency to "overclaim" false information

ITHACA, N.Y., July 20 (UPI) -- Self-proclaimed subject matter experts are more likely to fall victim to the illusion of knowledge. According to new research, experts are prone to "overclaim" false facts and made-up information.

In an effort to test how self-perception influences behavior, researchers asked study participants to rate their level of knowledge on various subjects and then gave them an opportunity to show off that knowledge.

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"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," lead study author Stav Atir, a psychologist at Cornell University, said in a press release.

The first test had participants define personal finance terms. Of the 15 personal finance terms listed, most were real. But a few -- like pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit -- were fake. Those who had highly rated their knowledge of personal finance, prior to the test, were more likely to offer explanations for the fake terms.

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

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Researchers repeated the experiment, testing participants' knowledge of biology. This time, the testers were warned that some of the terms were made-up. Still, so-called experts were more likely to offer definitions for make-believe concepts like "meta-toxins" and "bio-sexual."

Finally, researchers looked to isolate the manipulating power of false confidence. Instead of asking participants to rate their knowledge of geography, researchers simply asked people to list their familiarity with a number of cities, both iconic and obscure (read fake).

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The rub was: Some participants were first given a very easy geography quiz. Scoring highly on the quiz inflated their confidence and inspired them to claim familiarity with places that don't exist.

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

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