Actor Jim Parsons plays know-it-all Sheldon Cooper on the popular "Big Bang Theory" sitcom. Actor Jim Parsons plays know-it-all Sheldon Cooper on the popular "Big Bang Theory" sitcom. Actor Jim Parsons plays know-it-all Sheldon Cooper on the popular "Big Bang Theory" sitcom. (Photo: Warner Bros. Television)

Scientists discover know-it-alls often fudge their facts; world breathes sigh of relief

Did we already know this finding? Perhaps. Maybe it's because we're so smart.

Week after week on the popular sitcom "The Big Bang Theory," Sheldon Cooper likes to prove he's the smartest guy in the room. He comes from a long line of pop culture know-it-alls. Remember postal worker Cliff Clavin from "Cheers"? Or how about that factoid-spouting kid from "Jerry Maguire"?

Well, as it turns out, know-it-alls don't just reside in the fictional world. A new study found two very important things. First is that know-it-alls, unlike unicorns, do exist. And two, those who claim to be smarter-than-thou often exaggerate their IQ.

“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,” says Stav Atir, an Israeli graduate student at Cornell University who led the study. She collaborated with Cornell psychology professor David Dunning and Tulane marketing professor Emily Rosenzweig.

In one experiment, the participants were asked to rate their overall familiarity with personal finance and then about 15 specific terms. While most of the words on the list were real (Roth IRA, inflation, home equity), the researchers also added three fake terms (pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit). As expected, people who viewed themselves as know-it-alls were most likely to claim expertise of the bogus finance terms.

The researchers conducted a similar test using knowledge of geography, and included fake names of U.S. cities. What, you've never heard of Monroe, Montana or Lake Othello, Wisconsin?

In another part of the study, the researchers caught 92% of participants fibbing when they claimed knowledge of non-existent terms like "meta-toxins" and "retroplex."

The study called “When Knowledge Knows No Bounds: Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge” was published in the Psychological Science journal.

"There's an old know-it-all saying: Sometimes right, sometimes wrong, always certain. I think this applies here," says A.J. Jacobs, the author of the bestselling book "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World." If anyone can claim to be an expert on this topic, it's Jacobs. After all, he read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica cover to cover. All 33,000 pages and 44 million words, all the way from Aak to Zywiec.

"I'm a reformed know-it-all," Jacobs tells From The Grapevine. "I'm a know-very-little. I think acknowledging how little we all know is absolutely crucial. The fancy know-it-all phrase for this might be 'epistemological humility.' I'm all for that."


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