Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

How to Get Know-It-Alls Off Their High Horse

15 rules of engagement that work.

Key points

  • People make life harder than it has to be by pretending it's easier than it can be.
  • When stressed, many reach for fake-infallibility, the false sense that they're right about everything & their rivals are wrong about everything
  • It's our civic duty to make this dangerous form of escapism prohibitive because we need all hands on deck dealing with the complexity.
  • Here are 15 rules of engagement for getting know-it-alls branded to whatever cause or cult off their high horses.

Life would be easier if we could treat all humans with the same respect and receptivity but we can’t. We might think we can if we’ve only lived in civilized circles but those circles can break down when people start promoting infallibility blood matches: I’m right about everything and you’re wrong about everything.

How best to respond to people who try to promote these infallibility blood battles, people or cults that play infallible god for whatever reason and in the name of whatever cause or no cause other than “‘cause I said so!”?

I’ve made a study of this challenge. Sometimes respect and receptivity work but usually not with folks who just want to feel infallible.

I’m a devout fallibilist. I believe that life has always been guesswork trying to figure out what work works to keep things working. I think it is our duty to be humble, admitting to our fallibility rather than pretending we’re infallible. Still, humility rarely works with fake infallibilists. We hope they’ll meet us in kind but they rarely do:

Look, I realize I could be wrong.
“I agree, you could be wrong and you are!”

Fake infallibilists engage in braggadocio and bravado, pegging their opponents as wimps. I have found it useful to meet their fierce fake infallibilism with fierce human fallibilism. I am impressed with the progress I’ve made in getting fake infallibilist to back off by applying these rules of engagement. Of course, the usual caveats apply. It can be dangerous to confront fake-infallibilists. Let your intuitions be your guide and be prepared for blowback.

  1. Focus exclusively on their fake infallibility: Attack them mercilessly for playing infallible god and only that. Do not debate matters of substance. They don’t care about it. They’re playing three dimensional chess but are only interested in the up-down dimension, them elevated to godlike status; you demoted to dirt. That’s the dimension to focus on.
  2. Don’t pull rank: The goal is to demote them to the elevated level of mere human. Infallibility battles are about who’s god and whose an idiot jerk. You aim to meet people in the middle where we all really live.
  3. Don't defend yourself: Either ignore, embrace their accusations. For example, when they accuse you of being arrogant either ignore it since you’re focusing only on their fake infallibility, or embrace it to return to attention back to their fake-infallibility (“Yes, I’m assertive. The human question is how to strike the balance between being too assertive vs. not assertive enough whereas you play god arrogantly pretending you’re the supreme judge of who’s arrogant.”
  4. Ignore or tease them about their brand loyalty: Cultists think their brand proves they’re gods. Anyone who challenges their fake authority, they brand with any brand they regard as devil spawn. Ignore or tease them about their branding. Fake infallibility is always the same BS, just different branding. That’s why cults all sound the same whatever their branding.
  5. Expose their rhetoric as generic: All it takes to be a fake infallibilist is pretending generic rhetoric is exclusive to one’s brand. Just have a bunch of generic words for the good guys (I.e. winner, kind, loyal, honest, etc.) and generic negative words for the bad guys (loser, unkind, disloyal, dishonest, etc.). Just spew the negatives at anyone who challenges you while claiming for yourself all the positive terms. Ridicule them relentlessly for doing this and pretending that those generic terms are exclusive to their brand.
  6. Throw their rhetoric back in their face: Once you’ve made a careful educated bet that they’re fake-infallibilists, use their generic rhetoric. If they call people triggered wimps for not agreeing with them, call them a triggered wimp for needing everyone to agree with them.
  7. Attack them first: Put them on the defensive and keep them there.
  8. Interrogate them and ignore their interrogations: Fake-infallibilists want to corner you in an interrogation not because they care what you think but merely to find some way to make you the loser of their infallibility blood match. They’ll pile on questions like it’s the Spanish Inquisition, and accuse you of evading their questions. Ignore them and corner them in interrogation about their fake-infallibility. Be relentless, dogged, tenacious.
  9. Demand definitions: Some of their branded terms are more specific. For example, these days some people accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being a “cult-member.” Demand definitions and explanations for how that term applies. Then demand that they explain why the shoe doesn’t fit them.
  10. Acknowledge their opinions as opinions: “I hear your opinion” demotes their fake-infallibility to what it is: One person’s opinion.
  11. Credibility where credibility is due: Fake infallibilists will switch tactics fluidly for example, one minute laughing at you for caring about morality and the next minute scolding you for not abiding by moral standards. They hope you’re not keeping track. They aren’t. They’ll say anything to feel godly in the moment. Keep track. When they lose credibility for example for arrogantly declaring you arrogant or shaming you for shaming. Expose it. You don’t take moral guidance from the boundlessly immoral.
  12. Use any cheap trick they’ve used while remembering that it’s a cheap trick: Imitate them mockingly. Parody them. Meet their sarcasm and snark with your own. Speak with authority that matches theirs. As long as you focus only on their fake infallibility and remember your fallibility you don’t have to remind them of your fallibility. Fake-infallibilists can’t drop their bravado for anything that feels weak to them. Show them that anyone can play tough.
  13. Before they scurry away claiming victory, predict that they will and if they stick around, thank them for not running away like the other wimps in their cult: That hooks them.
  14. Lower your expectations: Playing fake infallibility is tempting unless its cost become prohibitive. Your goal isn’t to get fake infallibilists to change their minds. Nor is it get them to surrender to your opinions. Rather it’s to plant a seed of doubt and enough humiliation to make their fake-infallibility costly. It is our civic duty to protect civilization. Paradoxically, this requires some incivility when dealing with the absolutely uncivilized.
  15. Turn human-to-human on a dime: If they even once tip into human-to-human, adult-to-adult interaction instead of alternating between pedantic parent or petulant child, reward them immediately with lighthearted humility. Remember the goal is to demote these god-playing fake infallibilists to the elevated level of merely human.


Sherman, Jeremy (2021) What's up with A**holes: How to spot and stop them without becoming one. Berkeley, CA: Evolving Press.