You Say You Know It All

Duping ourselves into overclaiming. How people overstate their knowledge, through an unconscious process of familiarity.

By Kaja Perina, published January 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

We've all met these people: They've seen everything before but get it all wrong nonetheless. So why do people overstate their knowledge? It's not necessarily a calculated effort to impress others. Some people may just think that everything they encounter is familiar to them, even if it's entirely fabricated.

Canadian researchers asked 211 students to rate their knowledge of cultural referents such as The Lusitaniaor Pygmalion, as well as non-existent items such as "El Puente" or "1966 Glass Animal." Students with narcissistic character traits (as determined by an earlier personality test) were more likely to express familiarity with all items, including the fake ones. Subjects then viewed the same items and new ones, and indicated their certainty about what they'd already seen. Subjects given more time to reflect on the items were just as likely to falsely claim familiarity with them, leading Del Paulhus, Ph.D., to conclude that overclaiming is an unconscious process.

Paulhus, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, believes that such behavior results from personality traits such as narcissism as well as a memory bias.

"People who overclaim are likely not aware of their behavior," Paulhus states in a paper presented at the American Psychological Association annual meeting. "Perhaps [the behavior] becomes more habitual over time and thus becomes a default reaction in relevant situations."