Just about everyone knows a person who could be considered a “know-it-all,” someone who believes their knowledge and beliefs are superior to others. In a new study, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered what many people already suspect: know-it-all people tend to consistently overestimate what they actually know.
The study focused on people who profess “belief superiority” — or thinking their views are superior to other viewpoints — when it comes to political issues. The findings show that, even after getting feedback showing how much they didn’t know relevant political facts, the belief-superior participants still claimed that their beliefs were objectively more correct than everyone else’s.
In addition, they were more likely to seek out new information in biased ways to confirm their sense of superiority.
The researchers used several studies to answer two key questions about political belief superiority: Do people who think that their beliefs are superior have more knowledge about the issues they feel superior about? And do belief-superior people use superior strategies when seeking out new knowledge?
To answer the first question, participants reported their beliefs and feelings of belief superiority regarding several political topics. Researchers asked them how much they thought they knew about these topics and then had them complete quizzes testing their actual knowledge on those issues.
Throughout six different experiments and several political topics, participants who were high in belief superiority thought that they knew a great deal about these topics. However, when comparing this perceived knowledge to how much people actually knew, the researchers found that belief-superior people were consistently overestimating their own knowledge.
“Whereas more humble participants sometimes even underestimated their knowledge, the belief superior tended to think they knew a lot more than they actually did,” said Michael Hall, a psychology graduate student and the study’s lead author.
Next, the researchers offered participants news articles about a political topic and asked them to select which ones they would like to read. Half of the articles supported the participants’ own point of view, whereas the other half challenged their position.
Belief-superior people were significantly more likely than their more humble counterparts to choose the articles that supported their beliefs. Furthermore, they were aware that they were seeking out biased information: when the researchers asked them what type of articles they had chosen, they readily admitted their preference for articles that supported their own beliefs.
“We thought that if belief-superior people showed a tendency to seek out a balanced set of information, they might be able to claim that they arrived at their belief superiority through reasoned, critical thinking about both sides of the issue,” Hall said.
Instead, these individuals strongly preferred information that supported their own views, indicating that they were probably missing out on opportunities to improve and balance their knowledge.
So why do people seem to reject opposing viewpoints? Researchers suggest that while some people insist that they are always right, all of us feel good when the beliefs we think are important are confirmed.
In other words, when a belief is strongly held, is tied to one’s identity or values, or is held with a sense of moral conviction, people are more likely to distance themselves from information and people that challenge their belief.
“Having your beliefs validated feels good, whereas having your beliefs challenged creates discomfort, and this discomfort generally increases when your beliefs are strongly held and important to you,” said Dr. Kaitlin Raimi, U-M assistant professor of public policy and the study’s co-author.
The researchers note that people are also likely to claim belief superiority in a variety of other areas besides politics, such as the environment, religion, relationship conflicts, and even relatively trivial topics such as etiquette and personal preferences.
The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Source: University of Michigan