In 2010, a group of mathematicians, historians and athletes were tasked with identifying certain names that represented significant figures within each discipline. They had to discern whether Johannes de Groot or Benoit Theron were famous mathematicians, for instance, and they could answer, Yes, No, or Don’t Know. As you might hope, the experts were better at picking out the right people (such as Johannes de Groot, who really was a mathematician) if they fell within their discipline. But they were also more likely to say they recognised the made-up figures (in this case, Benoit Theron). When their self-perception of expertise was under question, they would rather take a guess and ‘over-claim’ the extent of their knowledge than admit their ignorance with a ‘don’t know’.
Houdini himself seems to have intuitively understood the vulnerability of the intelligent mind. ‘As a rule, I have found that the greater brain a man has, and the better he is educated, the easier it has been to mystify him,’ he once told Conan Doyle.