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.
The researchers catch people claiming impossible knowledge by observing when they assert familiarity with made-up concepts, fabricated events, and people who don’t really exist.
In psychology, it’s a phenomenon called “overclaiming.”
“To overclaim is to claim familiarity with—or knowledge of—something that doesn’t exist,” says Stav Atir, a Cornell University graduate student in the field of psychology and lead author of a new study in Psychological Science.
“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,” says Atir.
Real Concepts And Foils
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.
Is Overclaiming 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,” says Dunning.
“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.”
David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell, and 2013 PhD graduate Emily Rosenzweig, now an assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University, are coauthors of the study.
A Thrive Center grant and the Templeton Foundation supported the research.