Reality Check for Experts!

In our therapeutic work, we are trained to ensure that we understand and respect the fact that we are ‘not the expert’- the client (you!) is! It’s your life and your emotions and expectations; how can I possibly be an expert in your life? You, your thoughts and how you make sense of them lead me. Yes, we can offer suggestions, challenge unhelpful thought patterns, offer another way of looking at things, but, ultimately, this is your life, your choice. I can never be the expert in that!

So, I was rather tickled to find a study this week that suggested the more ‘expert’ we are in our field, the more likely we are to fall for made up facts! The study, from Cornell University in the USA (Atir, Rosenzweig and Dunning, 2015), took 100 subjects, who were asked to rate their knowledge of personal finances, with 15 specific finance terms; however, 3 of the 15 terms were actually made up! What they found was that the more the subjects knew about personal finance, the more they were likely to over claim their knowledge of financial terms, and in this particular case, fictitious terms!

What was really interesting was that the same pattern of over claiming emerged for other areas, namely biology, philosophy, geography and literature. Even if the subjects were pre-warned that there would be fake terms in the questions, they still made the same patterns of over claiming. To cement these findings, they further split the subjects in to 3 groups; one group took an easy geography tests (thus boosting their confidence in geography), one group took a difficult test (thus convincing them that they were not experts in geography) and the third group took no test.

When the hypothesis was then tested, the group who took the easy quiz were more likely to claim that they had specific knowledge of non-existent towns in the US.

What the researchers actually want us to take away from this study is the fact that many of us may actually stop learning about a subject when we start to consider ourselves experts. Hmm. So, where does that leave us?

Well, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, is that we are experts in ourselves, but we often decide to stop learning. We decide to stop learning about ourselves and how we work and what we want from life, but the thing is, although we are experts, life changes. It changes in ways that we are not expecting, and sometimes, it changes in ways that we did not want.

Just because we are an expert in ourselves, doesn’t mean that we should ever stop learning about ourselves. If you were feeling low or demoralised, wouldn’t it be great to explore those feelings and learn why we are feeling like this? How it has affected us and how we can learn and grow from this?

Quite often, we are too scared to learn any more- after all, if things have gone so badly wrong for us at this point in our lives, what is the point? Life is a journey, it is not a destination (I am sure you will have heard that in a lecture somewhere, or even on a Christmas cracker!), and we are free to choose how we complete our journey and what we do along the way. By learning how to make ourselves feel fulfilled, we are not ‘faking it’. We are not professing to know the meaning of life! As a Counselling Psychologist, I do not know everything about life. I still make mistakes, I am no expert, but one thing I do want to do, is I want to carry on learning and growing. Each client I have teaches me something about life, psychology, my practice and the world. I wouldn’t want to stop learning for anything- would you?


Atir, S., Rosenzweig, E. and Dunning, D. (2015) ‘When Knowledge Knows No Bounds Self-Perceived Expertise Predicts Claims of Impossible Knowledge’, Psychological Science, July.