Why People Say They Know Made-up Things

People who think they know a little something about a topic, confident though they may be, commonly and easily claim knowledge they couldn’t possibly have.

In a recent study, researchers caught people claiming impossible knowledge by observing when they asserted familiarity with made-up concepts, fabricated events, and people who don’t really exist.

In psychology, it’s a phenomenon called “overclaiming.”

Lead author Stav Atir, a Cornell University graduate student in psychology, explains:

“To overclaim is to claim familiarity with—or knowledge of—something that doesn’t exist. The general idea is that practically everyone is somewhat vulnerable to overclaiming, but people are the most vulnerable in those areas of life in which they perceive themselves to be experts.”

Real and Unreal Concepts

In the first two parts of the study, the researchers show that self-perceived financial knowledge predicts claiming an understanding of nonexistent, false financial concepts.

For example, participants were provided 15 terms or concepts; a dozen were real and the rest were fabricated. Real examples included tax bracket, fixed-rate mortgage, home equity, revolving credit, vesting, and stock options.

The foil terms were pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, and annualized credit. Ninety-three percent of participants claimed some knowledge of at least one foil.

In another part of the study, despite warning participants of fictitious concepts, the researchers found that participants still overclaimed knowledge. Participants with self-perceived expertise in geography prompted assertions of familiarity with nonexistent places.

Although the participants knew about Philadelphia, the National Mall in Washington, and Acadia National Park in Maine, they also claimed familiarity with the brilliant blue skies of Monroe, Montana, the cheesy farmland near Lake Othello, Wisconsin, and the geography of Cashmere, Oregon, all places that don’t exist.

The researchers also found that 92 percent of people claimed at least some familiarity with the nonexistent biological topics of meta-toxins, bio-sexual, and retroplex.

Overclaiming vs. Lying

Dunning says that overclaiming does not necessarily make someone a liar:

“Life gives many opportunities for people to claim expertise they don’t have. Focusing research on non-existent concepts allows us to be sure they are overclaiming. Along with other researchers, we have noted that warning people that some concepts are fake does not eliminate their overclaiming, which suggests their mistaken claims are honest.”

The study was published in Psychological Science.

Photo: Chris Marchant/flickr