Here's How to Fool People Into Thinking They Know More Than They Do

| Wed May 22, 2013 12:20 PM EDT

Which do you learn more from? A presenter with good speaking skills and professional visual aids, or someone reading badly from prepared notes? Oddly enough, a team of psychologists actually decided to test this. Their test subjects, as usual, were university students:

Afterwards the students answered questions about how much they felt they had learned. As expected, students who had watched the lecturer with better presentation skills expected to remember more of the material, believed that they understood the material better, and rated their interest and motivation more highly than the students who watched the dud instructor.

The twist came when the students took a test that investigated their memory and understanding of the Calico cats concept. The students who watched the skillful (or “fluent”) lecturer barely outperformed the students who watched the “disfluent speaker.” But they did much poorer than they expected to do, whereas the other group did about as well as they expected.

If these results hold up, it means that flashy, TED-style lectures don't actually impart any more knowledge than boring old-school lectures. But they do make you more confident that you learned something. Is that worthwhile all by itself? Or is it better to have a proper grasp of just how much you really know? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

POSTSCRIPT: And what's this business about calico cats? Well, that was the subject of the test lecture. Roughly speaking, cats are white by default, and their two sex chromosomes each add a color to their coat. Color is carried on the X chromosome, so female (XX) cats can potentially be tricolored (orange, black, and white). Male (XY) cats max out at two colors (white plus one other). So with rare exceptions, only female cats can be calicos.

POSTSCRIPT 2: Are you thirsting for a political angle to this? Well, Fox News is pretty well known for pioneering a much flashier, more visual approach to the news. Does this turn Fox watchers into tedious blowhards who think they know more than anyone else even though they don't? I report, you decide.