Study reveals the people that most often fake knowing things

Participants were asked how well versed they were in math topics by answering “know it well” or “never heard of it.” But there was a catch.

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Feigning comprehension of any given subject is one of the most recognizable features of the 21st century’s personality thanks, in no small part, to the internet. Namely, Wikipedia: A data-based chalked full with more than enough cliff notes, to get you through a mixer or two without actually having to read a single page of The Selfish Gene. 

The phenomenon has many names, as several prominent thinkers have taken a stab at dissecting over the years, most recently John Jerram and Nikki Shure of the University College of London, and Phil Parker of Australian Catholic University.

Together, these have penned a scientific paper aptly titled, Bullsh-tters. Who Are They and What Do We Know About Their Lives? The authors aimed to locate the most common offenders in society by way of a brilliant methodology.


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Participants were asked how well versed they were in 16 different math topics by answering with either: “know it well” or “never heard of it.” But three of the sixteen topics didn’t actually exist: “proper numbers,” “subjunctive scaling” and “declarative fractions.” The participants that claimed knowledgeability in the fictitious subjects, were then promptly labeled as “bullsh-tters.”

A knack for hyperbole

The results highlighted 15-year-old boys across all nine regions observed in the study to erroneously claim expertise more than female respondents by a significant margin. Canadians and American boys expressed a particular penchant for bunk compared to individuals observed in Europe. Moreover,  wealthy respondents tended to feign comprehension more than the middle class and the poor.

From the study:

“Compared to other countries, young people in North America are found to be bigger bullsh-tters than young people in England, Australia, and New Zealand, while those in Ireland and Scotland are the least likely to exaggerate their mathematical knowledge and abilities. Strong evidence also emerges that bullsh-tters also display overconfidence in their academic prowess and problem-solving skills, while also reporting higher levels of perseverance when faced with challenges and providing more socially desirable responses than more truthful groups.”

The authors behind the study had a lot to say about the implications of the findings, some of which was actually charitable. They remarked on how mastering self-hyperbolizing can be a useful and advantageous skill for young professionals looking to secure positions and promotions.

Nicki Shure, one of the study’s coauthors, believes these numbers might, in some way, inform gender wage gaps: “This has important implications for thinking about tasks in job interviews and how to evaluate performance.”

She goes on to identify earnings directly, while also conceding that the study was limited to mathematics. The researchers wish to further their research by applying similar methods to other fields of academics.


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CW Headley|is a reporter for Ladders and can be reached at cheadley@theladders.com.