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The value of being honest about what you don't know

POSTED August 13, 2015 9:49 a.m.
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Know-it-alls, people quick to correct someone else's error and offer random bits of trivia, should strive to be more realistic about their expertise, according to new research.

The study, published this week by Psychological Science (paywall), found that when people have an inflated sense of their own knowledge of subjects like finance, literature, biology, philosophy or geography, they are likely to claim knowledge of even made-up facts about those topics.

"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," said lead author Stav Atir of Cornell University in a statement.

Researchers showed through a series of experiments that self-proclaimed experts on certain topics could be tricked into further overstatement. For example, people who believed they were masters of personal finance were more likely to identify fake financial terms like "pre-rated stocks" or "annualized credit" as genuine jargon, Time reported.

"According to the researchers, the big takeaway from the study should be that many of us may actually stop learning about a subject when we start to consider ourselves experts," The Washington Post reported. "We're so insecure about our self-proclaimed expertise that we're afraid of being exposed to things we don't yet know."

The new know-it-all findings join an ongoing discussion about the value of intellectual humility, which a 2012 Big Questions Online post defined as caring "so much about knowing, understanding and getting to the truth of some big question that we become oblivious of how we rank, of what we are "worth vis-à-vis the other status-striving agents in our circle" of friends or peers.

The virtue is best known for being spotlighted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as something Google looks for in its employees.

In January, Deseret News National reported on an earlier study about intellectual humility, noting that being open about their own knowledge gaps allows people to become better workers, learners and friends.

Or as the Post's Rachel Feltman wrote, "You're not doing yourself any favors by building yourself up to be an 'expert' who's above learning new things. And according to these findings, you might end up embarrassing yourself, too."
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