How to Guess When You're Dealing With a Know-It-All

Four tips for making better educated guesses. And why we must.

Posted Aug 12, 2018

Know-it-all trolls are exhibitionists. They sidle up to you as if to engage in a dialog. When they’ve got your attention, they open their trench coat and expose their stiff, narrow, little beliefs. You have a predictable reaction, leaving, fighting or trying to stay civil. They’ve got a way to turn any of that into a trollgasm. If you leave, you’re a wimp; if you fight them, they’ve got a deck of trumped-up trump cards they can play to make the problem you not them; and if you try to stay civil, they will savage you, always from a fake moral high ground.

Most adopt this exhibitionist hobby by listening to a leader they love, someone who speaks to the choir from a bully pulpit. Most would-be exhibitionists (these days, the Hannity, Limbaugh, Trump wannabes) haven’t figured out that it’s much easier to have a monologue with supporters than it is to dialog with real humans who disagree with you. They rush in all gangbusters, forgetting to sidle up as if for conversation. They don’t know how to pretend they care what you think before playing out their exhibitionist fantasy.

So here’s a guideline for troll detection. If they show up uninterested, they’re uninteresting trolls, over-eager amateur exhibitionists. They can’t even fake conversation long enough to get their trollgasm.

Here’s another rule of guessing whether someone is a know-it-all troll. It’s guessing. You can never know for certain. Still, you have to guess:

Grant me the interest to engage with the interested, the disinterest to detach from the uninterested, and the wisdom to know the difference.

The core difference between you and a know-it-all is that you know it’s all guesswork. They don’t. They have a pathological degree of confirmation bias and hindsight bias. Confirmation bias enables them to focus solely on what confirms what they already know. Hindsight bias enables them to pretend as though the future is as determined as the past is in hindsight. Combine those and you can always come up with some evidence that proves you’ve been right all along and therefore will be right all along about the future.

If you ever can corner one of these trolls in an outright lie (very difficult), they have a move that covers that too. They go agnostic and fatalistic, pretending that what’s right doesn’t matter anyway. Life is just a power struggle between competing perspectives. They’re proud know-it-alls because they know the invincible tricks for fighting dirty.

Given that they’ll stop at nothing to feel invincible, how can you tell if you’re dealing with a troll? By the way that they take every challenge as an affirmation that they’re right and will be forever.

But every challenge? You can never pose every challenge, so you can never tell for sure. Suppose you pose 1000 challenges to a know-it-all and he deflects every one of them. At that point, you decide that he’s a know-it-all. But what if the 1,001st challenge changes his mind? Apparently, your bet was wrong. He was receptive after all.

Someone could pose 1,000 ridiculous challenges to you. You would deflect them all. If the challenges are ridiculous enough. that doesn’t prove that you’re a know-it-all.

Admitting that you’re just making educated guesses about who’s a know-it-all comes in handy in dealing with know-it-alls. If you imply or declare that they’re know-it-alls, they’ll deflect that too. They’ll cast doubt on your guess just like they cast doubt on everything you say. They’ll say “You don’t know that I’m a know-it-all!. How dare you assume!” If it comes to that you can say “Of course I assume, like you, like everyone. That’s my guess and I’m sticking with it.”

Know-it-alls think they’re infallible. You don’t. Their certainty only trumps your confidence if you let it. Debates can’t and shouldn’t be won by the most self-certain. Stalin was the most self-certain but certainly not the most right. The trick to defeating know-it-alls isn’t defending your certainty against theirs. At best, that just ends in a stalemate. The trick to defeating know-it-alls is in making other fallibilists like you recognize the know-it-all for the fool he is.

Transactional analysis, a psychological theory popular in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, distinguished three basic stances we take: parent, adult, and child. The parent is the authority, teaching others how to behave. The child is the one who is parented, passive, often the victim of circumstances. Know-it-all trolls play both roles.

They talk like authoritative parents instructing the whole world. If you challenge them on their behavior, they play the child, the victim of circumstances. What they’ll never play is adult, a mature person trying to make educated guesses about what’s best to do, just like everyone else. You know you’re fallible. A know-it-all assumes he is infallible.

How do you get know-it-alls to engage as adults? Many would say, don’t bother. Don’t waste time trying to stay interested in the uninterested. That’s a great solution when you can pull it off, but you can’t when it’s your spouse, friend, colleague, boss or even the president of the United States. So that’s the problem we have to solve. How do you trump someone who will stop at nothing to trump you, playing parent, playing child—anything but an adult? How do you get them to grow up before they do more damage than you can afford?

This is the perfect season to address that challenge. Though there have been know-it-alls for every possible belief—trolls for Jesus, Allah, Buddha, atheism, science, left and right wing causes, every cause you can think of. We’re currently dealing with a textbook example, a know-it-all cult that has blown up so large these days that if it continues it will put an end to everything that was ever different about America.

It’s hard to even say what it’s crusading for, which makes it easy to see that it’s just crusading for its invincible know-it-all status, greatness vaguely defined by a glorious victory and happily ever after—nothing in between, no backlash, no ongoing resentment against their initial and ultimate vindication.

That too is a clue. When a know-it-all spouts about a glorious future, their equivalent of the Third Riech or the Age of Aquarius or Marxism prevailing, they're not realistic about what happens after their immediate win. They can only picture winning since that's all they care about and they're willing to ignore reality to sustain the high of anticipated glory.

They use all the cheap tricks ever discovered for playing god, infallible, invincible, and unassailable. Today's cult has little if anything to do with what it stands for. The allure is the opportunity for its cultists to play know-it-alls.