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Being Labeled An Expert May Contribute To Someone Being Closed-Minded


As the presidential campaign continues, you are sure to hear from experts offering opinions about who's up, who's down, what's going to happen next. And you may sometimes - or often - find yourself asking, what makes you so sure you know what you're talking about? New psychological research answers that question. And to explain it, we're joined by NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. Hi, Shankar.


INSKEEP: What the answer?

VEDANTAM: Well, the answer, at least in part, Steve, has to do with the fact that when you're labeled as an expert, it changes the way your mind works. When you anoint someone as an expert, it makes them more confident. It also makes them more dogmatic in their opinions. They become less willing to embrace other points of view and more rigid in their thinking.

INSKEEP: Oh, my goodness. What is the evidence for that?

VEDANTAM: Well, a series of experiments by Victor Ottati at Loyola University in Chicago along with Erika Price, Chase Wilson and Ataniel Sumatoyo (ph). Ottati wanted to explore the idea that the roles you inhabit change the way that you behave. So if you're a teacher, for example, you're expected to behave differently in a classroom than if you're sitting at a bar. Ottati wondered, is this also happening to people labeled as experts? Are they internalizing a role that calls for them to sound confident and dogmatic? Now, it's difficult to test this with actual experts because sometimes you're called an expert because you actually do know what you're talking about.


VEDANTAM: And you have every right to sound confident.

INSKEEP: Sometimes - anyway, go on.

VEDANTAM: Yeah. So what Ottati wanted to do was he wanted to uncouple actual expertise from just the label of expertise. So what he did is he brought in a bunch of volunteers, and he flattered them into believing that they were experts.

VICTOR OTTATI: I figured, geez, it would seem that if I could get people to sort of think of themselves, perhaps temporarily, as being an expert, they would become in fact more dogmatic in their style of thinking. Whereas, perhaps if I did the opposite, they would become more open-minded.

VEDANTAM: He also ran a second experiment, Steve, where he made people feel like they were experts by either giving them difficult tests or easy tests. It made some people feel knowledgeable, other people feel ignorant.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. So some people thought, wow, I'm pretty smart here. They were given that feeling. And then what happened?

VEDANTAM: Well, when people failed the difficult test, they felt they were not smart. But those who passed the test felt they knew a lot. Ottati told me that the volunteers that he had artificially induced to feel knowledgeable and smart started displaying changes in their behavior.

OTTATI: Success on these tests puts the person in a position of sort of temporarily feeling that they are an expert. And then we noticed that the people respond in a more close-minded manner than the people who have recently just failed.

INSKEEP: So people were less likely to listen to others, people less likely to say, I don't know. That's what you're saying when they said they insisted suddenly that they knew everything; they knew the answers.

VEDANTAM: That's exactly right. Ottati has come up with a wonderful term for this phenomenon, Steve. He calls it the earned dogmatism effect. People feel they have earned the right to close their ears and eyes to become dogmatic because they feel like they're experts. Now, of course, this is not to say that every expert is being dogmatic. Sometimes people actually do know what they're talking about, and they have every right to sound confident. But the point that he is making is that the role of being expert changes the way that you think and behave. And you should be vigilant to those risks.

INSKEEP: What makes you so sure that...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: You know that this is true, Shankar Vedantam?

VEDANTAM: I am an expert, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you very much. That's NPR's Shankar Vedantam, who joins us regularly to talk about social science research. He explores how roles shape behavior and other ideas on his new podcast Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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