By Alexandra Sifferlin
July 20, 2015

People who consider themselves experts in a given topic are more likely to claim knowledge of made-up “facts” about that topic, a new study shows.

Researchers conducted a series of experiments to assess how likely people were to believe fictions presented as fact. In one of the experiments, for example, the researchers had 100 people rate their level of knowledge for personal finance by describing their familiarity with 15 different financial terms.

What the participants didn’t know was that some of the terms were fake. For instance, the researchers used made-up words like “pre-rated stocks”, “fixed-rate deduction”, and “annualized credit.” They found that the people who claimed they were personal finance experts were more likely to identify the fake words as genuine financial jargon. The researchers conducted similar tests for other topics and discovered similar results.

“The more people believed they knew about finances in general, the more likely they were to overclaim knowledge of the fictitious financial terms,” said study author Stav Atir, a psychological scientist at Cornell University in a statement. “The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography.”

The researchers argue that the findings, which are published in the journal Psychological Science, indicate failures among people to acknowledge gaps in their own expertise. The authors suggest that people may be less willing to educate themselves about topics they think they know everything about, even when they should.

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