Nothing elicits eye-rolling like a statement starting with “you know what your problem is…” Once someone crosses the line from confident to overconfident, it’s hard to feel anything but annoyed at what a speaker has to say. Rather dutifully, scientists posed an uncomfortable question though— what if know-it-alls, or those with “belief superiority,” truly deserved the praise they’d heap upon their own opinions? It wasn’t that scientists were looking to pat these folks on the back— they were characterized as people who already felt they knew more than other people, after all. The hope was that if know-it-alls actually did know more than their peers, then maybe we could all learn some of the techniques they employed to gain that knowledge, possibly making learning easier for everyone.
Know-it-alls don’t know better
For better or for worse, it turned out that society’s low opinion of belief-superior people was right all along. When quizzed on topics they claimed to have a special mastery of, know-it-alls didn’t actually know as much as they’d claim, demonstrating no special grasp of information at all. Conversely, people who spoke more humbly of their knowledge often performed better than they predicted.
The over-inflated opinions of belief-superior people seems related to the Dunning-Kruger effect, wherein people who don’t know how limited their knowledge is greatly overestimate their mastery of a topic. However, a second phase of this experiment found an important wrinkle in that model. Even though belief-superior people didn’t show any advantage in their knowledge, researchers still tested how they seek out new information. When offered six sources of information on a topic, know-it-alls tended to purposely pick sources that they thought would agree with their own opinions. This indicates that they knew other ideas existed, but seemed to prefer hearing their own “expertise” echoed back to them.
More than mere opinions
Some of this may not be the know-it-all’s fault. Other studies have previously looked at how even average people react to opinions contrary to their own on neurological level. By monitoring brain activity in an fMRI, researchers found that ideas that conflicted with test participant’s opinions were processed by the brain like physical threats. This may help explain why simply being exposed to contrasting opinions doesn’t change minds very easily; in at least one experiment, contrary opinions actually reinforced readers’ original viewpoints, pushing them towards political extremes. Belief-superiority doesn’t require an extreme viewpoint, of course, but all these factors may help explain why overconfident beliefs can feel so insufferable.
Source: Scientists Tested How Much Know-It-Alls Actually Know, And The Results Speak For Themselves by Futurity, Science Alert