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Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Office Life

Why we fall for fake experts and how to watch out for them

It is too easy to be duped by charlatans in your office. They may look like experts, they may talk like experts, but when you take a deeper look, you realize that there is nothing of substance going on there.

Why do we keep falling for these posers? Turns out, our brains are biased towards false expertise, hardwired to see “messy proxies of expertise,” as University of Utah management professor Bryan Bonner who has studied fake experts, puts it. Through these proxies, we learn to wrongly associate traits associated with expertise with actual expertise. We think loudmouths who hold court in meetings actually know what they are talking about. We give too much weight to confident answers, as opposed to right answers. We pick people who look like us over people who don’t.

And this costs us at work. In his research, Bonner found that teams who took the time to expose fake expertise could complete problem-solving tasks than those that kept the fake experts on their team.

But there’s hope. These unconscious biases can be unlearned once we learn how these fakers operate:

Watch out for loudmouths

Recognize that we are susceptible to sweet talkers who know how to suck out the oxygen in a room and take up all the airtime in a conversation. One study found that “a group member’s influence is determined more by the quantity than by the quality of his/her contributions.” In other words, we believe that the amount of time people spend talking is a bigger indicator of someone’s knowledge than what their contribution to the conversation was about.

Learn to catch yourself if you find yourself nodding along to a chatterbox so that you can stop and listen to what is actually being said.

Watch out for dismissing strangers over friends

We are a wary lot who prefer our own kind over new kinds of people. Psychology research has found that familiarity will make us like someone more than a stranger.

But we need to learn to move beyond our gut impression as working professionals. One study found that at worst, we decide who is trustworthy based on unconscious racial biases. In the absence of other information, people were likely to discount the opinion of unfamiliar individuals. “Whom we trust is not only a reflection of who is trustworthy, but also a reflection of who we are,” they concluded.

To not get trapped in our biases, we need to learn to seek outside information about trustworthy coworkers.

Watch out for your confirmation bias

At some offices, there are coworkers who can seemingly do no wrong. Managers love them. Every answer they give is right. Every idea they share is golden. In cognitive science, it’s called the “halo effect,” where people get blinded by the positive perception of a person. You want to believe they are right, so you do.

In the workplace, this can happen during the first weeks of a new job. You are good at one part of your job, so people assume you must be good at other parts of it. But this confirmation bias can backfire if you make a bad first impression. As business author James Sudakow writes, “If I start badly, I have established negative confirmation bias. I’m in a hole. Even positive interactions and good decisions are viewed as me getting ‘lucky’ or are written off under the pretext of ‘anyone could have gotten that one.'”

Are they good at their job or do they just seem good at their job? Learning this difference will help you avoid being played by a fool by office frauds who are counting on you to never look beyond that initial positive judgment.

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