Do some people misjudge their own knowledge and expertise? A new study says this is true and that some over-estimate their abilities. Probably no news flash there. Certainly some people are not good at realistic self-appraisal.
However, as with many psychological studies, this one missed the boat in a fundamental way. It failed to investigate WHY people misjudge their expertise. And I believe the researchers missed the role of emotions, especially the emotion of shame.
One likely explanation is that this study was probably conducted by cognitive psychologists, who are focused on thinking and fail to take into account emotions as drivers of human behavior.
This study was published in Psychological Science and was recently blogged about with the headline: “Feeling Like An Expert Has An Ironic Effect On Your Actual Knowledge.”
(It seems this headline is also inaccurate. The study does not appear to show that if one feels like an expert it actually decreases actual knowledge. The study merely discovered that people seem to overestimate their own knowledge. These are very different concepts.)
In the study people were given a general knowledge quiz about personal finance with some fake terms thrown in. People who stated they were financial experts were more likely to claim they knew all about these three bogus terms.
What the study really shows is that some people have a deep inability to be wrong, which indicates they have a difficulty tolerating shame. This study isn’t about knowledge or expertise. Instead it is about pride, hubris and defending against shame.
We all know someone who is the “expert” on every subject, has an opinion about every topic, will argue unceasingly about a point, and can’t back down and be wrong. In “Pack Leader Psychology” I label these people “Dominators.” They lack an ability to be accountable and be wrong, because they are deeply insecure people. As a result, they have difficulty tolerating any additional experiences of shame.
This study points out a behavior that this “Dominator” type of person exhibits: They think they know a lot and proclaim they are “experts.” And even if they don’t know something, they certainly will not admit it. That would feel too painful to their delicate sense of self-worth.
One key insight into human behavior is this sentence: “Even after people were warned that some of the terms were made up, people who thought they were experts still over-estimated their knowledge.”
This indicates a person who — even when given a warning flag — cannot consider that they might be headed in the wrong direction.