Are You As Smart As You Think You Are?

Research suggests that being an expert can encourage people to be less creative and more stubborn.

The study comes from Loyola University of Chicago, in which participants were made to feel knowledgable in a subject through being asked easy questions, before being assessed for their openness.

The researchers called the resulting closed-mindedness earned dogmatism.

“When individuals perceive themselves to be an expert, they feel that they have ‘earned’ the privilege of thinking and behaving in a more dogmatic manner.”Dr. Victor Otatti

In a way it seems logical. If you’ve spent the time and energy gathering experience and knowledge, then feeling confident in what you know is not only warranted but expected.

How would you feel going to see a doctor that keeps changing their mind or that seems unsure about the correct way to treat something?

“In our society, we tolerate more forceful and dogmatic expressions of opinion when the speaker is an expert than when the speaker is a novice.”—Dr. Victor Otatti

In a way the results are also counterintuitive. As noted by Research Digest:

“… research on stress and emotion tells us that feeling relaxed and successful – as you might expect an expert to feel more than a novice – encourages open-mindedness.”

Then again, when it comes to being creative and open to new perspectives, an expert should be able to take that information and incorporate it more effectively with all of the other knowledge they have. Whereas a novice, having no prior experience, would lack the critical eye to spot flaws and misinformation.

So what would appear as closed-mindedness could in fact be an experts ability to dissect, judge, and compare that information.

The Illusion of Mastery

The problem is that the participants weren’t necessarily experts, they were made to feel that way by answering easy questions.

Their sense of mastery was a fleeting illusion, but one that clearly made an impact on how they felt and behaved.

Given the effect was induced easily, and without the awareness of the participants, it stands to reason many of us might suffer from the same illusion in everyday life.

For instance, a novice, having little understanding of a topic, would also lack the awareness of how much they don’t know. While they might not claim to be experts, they might think they’re not far of, simply because they can’t see how much there is to learn.

This idea is at the heart of the Dunning-Kruger bias, whereas unskilled people suffer from an illusion of superiority, drawn from their own ineptitude to evaluate their ability.

The Dunning-Kruger effect goes both ways, however, as experts tend to feel as though their knowledge and understanding is shared by others, therefore they underestimate their ability.

The internet might not be helping our already inflated sense of intelligence. Research out of Yale University found that people can confuse the ease of accessing information through Google with their own knowledge.

Unfortunately finding answers through the net is not the same as proper learning.

Interestingly, the effect remained even if the participants failed to find what they were looking for.

“If you don’t know the answer to a question, it’s very apparent to you that you don’t know, and it takes time and effort to find the answer. With the Internet, the lines become blurry between what you know and what you think you know.”—Matthew Fisher

The Woes of Experience

These are hardly the only ventures into the difference between what someone knows and what that person thinks they know.

And they certainly don’t only afflict the novice.

As we already noted with the Dunning-Kruger bias, experts may think that what they know is common knowledge.

This feeds into something known as the curse of knowledge, in which people that are experienced in something find it difficult to take the perspective of novices, they become unable to see problems or information as some lesser informed person would.

I can only imagine this makes it more difficult to for the experienced and the novice to have meaningful conversations on interesting topics. Something I think was summed up well with Travis Swicegood’s invention of expertise syndrome:

Expertise syndrome (n):

  • Becoming so skilled in a given topic, methodology, etc., that you can’t discuss it with someone who is lesser skilled than yourself as you leave out significant parts by deeming them “common knowledge”.
  • When knowledge within a community becomes “common knowledge” and is no longer discussed at which point new comers often find it hard to find basic information.

Clearly there are terms and ideas that a novice won’t know or understand. But that problem might affect the expert too.

Research by Cornell University discovered that people that feel knowledgable in a subject will claim they know things that they don’t, even saying they recognize terms that were entirely made up. An effect known as the overclaiming error.

From Research Digest:

“… see if any of these terms seem familiar: meta-toxin, bio-sexual, retroplex. Ringing any bells? If so, you may be surprised to hear that these terms are entirely made-up. They are “trap items” invented to study overclaiming, the claiming of knowledge you could not possibly possess.”

Where Does This Leave Us?

While both the expert and the novice are prone to either over or underestimating what they know, I think it’s safe to assume that having the knowledge is a good thing, whether you know it or not.

What do you think? How smart are you? How do you evaluate your own intelligence?

Interested in being the expert more than the novice? Check out my upcoming free ebook Connecting the Dots

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