Why Do We Feign Knowledge?

Everyone claims at one point to have knowledge of something they have no knowledge of. But why? It's all about who you perceive yourself to be that dictates your feigned expertise.

Claiming knowledge of things we have no knowledge of is something everyone has done at one point or another, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This kind of overconfidence has a science behind it, and Cornell professor David Dunning is one of the men who studies it. Mary Dooe from PRI writes that it's a bit of a psychological phenomenon — people who claim expertise in a subject they know nothing about.


Dunning has put this claimed intelligence to the test, asking participants to answer questions on various fake subjects from political figures to cities. Yet, despite their non-existence people still have an opinion about them. He explains:

"What we find is that people are quite ready to start talking about things they can't possibly know anything about because we made that thing up in our office just the week before."

He says that there's a rational reason for this rather silly behavior, saying that we assume anything anyone is asking us has some basis of truth. So, why bog down a conversation with questions? Instead, he says, "People don't necessarily exactly know what they know versus what they don't know; they infer what they know versus what they don't know from, let's say, preexisting notions they have about themselves."

It all depends on how you see yourself. If you consider yourself a geek, of course you're going to know about that comic book or tech product that may not exist. Perhaps, you consider yourself a political news junkie — ever hear of this candidate that doesn't exist? Sure.

As for what causes this overconfidence is unclear. Dunning says:

"There is a reason to believe that at times we are going to make mistakes and claim knowledge of things we have no knowledge of. We're inveterate storytellers; we're inveterate explainers; we're inveterate theory inventors. We see something out there in the world and we try to explain why it's happening."

The anti-vaxxer movement is a clear result of that. Parents want to know why their child has autism, and a narrative begins to form with questionable science between rising vaccination rates correlating to rising rates of autism.

Read and listen to more at PRI.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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