Science says those who think they are experts are more likely to be closed-minded

Zen Buddhists believe it’s best to think like a beginner.
Zen Buddhists believe it’s best to think like a beginner.
Image: Reuters/ Nguyen Huy Kham
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Those who count themselves as experts might want to re-evaluate their level of self-confidence, as a new study warns that there’s a downside to feeling knowledgeable.

Researchers led by Professor Victor Ottati from Loyola University of Chicago conducted six experiments on 272 participants in a study due to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, and found that those who perceive themselves as experts tend to exhibit more closed-minded behavior.

Ottari and his colleagues hypothesize that social norms allow those who claim expertise to adopt a more closed-minded position.

“Because experts have already given extensive thought to issues within a domain, they have ‘earned’ the privilege of harboring more dogmatic opinions and beliefs,” write the authors.

The researchers used general knowledge tests with varying levels of difficulty to help participants perceive themselves as more or less knowledgeable. In one study, some participants were given an easy political test and told they over-performed, while others were given a difficult test and told they under-performed.

Participants were then asked to state how much they agreed, on a scale of 1 to 7, with a series of statements that indicate open-mindedness, e.g. “I am open to considering other political viewpoints.”

Those who were made to feel like experts were found to be significantly more closed minded.

Although each individual study had a small number of participants (30 to 60 people), the findings were replicated across six studies, which used various different tests to manipulate a sense of expertise.

The findings might puncture the equanimity of those who regard themselves as experts, but they will not surprise Zen Buddhists. The Zen concept of “Shoshin” urges everyone, even those who believe they are learned, to adopt a ‘beginner’s mind.’ By temporarily setting aside our knowledge and preconceptions, the argument goes, we will be more open to new ideas and possibilities.

Those who practice Shoshin can now say of the new study, “We told you so.” But that wouldn’t be a very Zen thing to do.