Fool others about your intellect…or are they fooling you about theirs?
The science behind perceived intelligence
Sheepishly, Kevin Adkins admits that when he’s insecure, he uses big words to appear smarter. “Only when I need to impress the person,” says the 41-year-old. “Dates with women? Definitely. At the grocery store? Not so much.”
Recently, when flirting with a stylist at the barber shop, he asked her to give him a “symmetric” haircut, instead of just telling her to trim it evenly. And when he gave an attractive woman directions, he made a point of telling her that the two options they discussed were “equidistant” rather than simply saying that both were about the same distance.
Adkins isn’t alone. Researchers have documented how people try to appear smarter or use criteria to decide whether others are smart. Many judgments are rooted in stereotypes, yet they persist. “People love to take shortcuts when forming impressions of people,” says Bogdan Wojciszke, a professor of social psychology in Poland who studies how people form impressions of other people. “We tend to make judgments based on easy cues, without thinking too much.”
Because people know, consciously or unconsciously, that others form impressions of them after a glance or short conversation, they may work harder to give the “right” impression so they’re judged favorably. There may be no validity to these impressions, yet people value others’ perceptions. “It’s almost a game that two people are playing,” says Eric R. Igou, a social psychologist at Ireland’s University of Limerick who also does studies on the subject. “If the observer, person B, doesn’t have the same theory, it can backfire.” Person A may be perceived as pretentious instead of intelligent, he adds. So, want to look smarter? Here are some tips from science-backed studies and experts.
If you use a thesaurus when composing emails, you may be guilty of trying to boost your intelligence perception. “Smart people have good vocabularies,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “People think: If I can show that I have a good vocabulary, I’ll sound smarter.” But Oppenheimer’s research shows that authors are deemed smarter when writing is easier to understand. Using big words just to impress people may have the opposite effect. “People associate intelligence with clarity of expression,” Oppenheimer says, adding that smarter people do use longer words in their writing, but their aim is to write clearly.
You’ve no doubt heard of—or even encountered—people who talk loudly to try to sound smart, but to some extent, that method actually does work. The key is to be a more expressive speaker by varying your volume and energy. “If two speakers utter exactly the same words, but one speaks a little faster and louder and with fewer pauses and greater variation in volume, that speaker will be judged to be more energetic, knowledgeable, and intelligent,” communication expert Leonard Mlodinow told Forbes. If you’re having a hard time grasping what this means, watch any TED Talk.
Use your middle initial
It may seem awkward or too formal to include your middle initial when writing your name, but other people likely won’t think so. A series of studies conducted by the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom showed that participants expected people who used their middle initials to be more intelligent. As Forbes reports, participants read and rated an essay on Einstein’s theory of relativity, attributed to David Clark, David F. Clark, David F. P. Clark, or David F. P. R. Clark. The more middle initials used in the name, the higher the essay was rated.
People whose smiles appear authentic, with wrinkles around the eyes, are judged to be more intelligent than people whose smiles seem fake, according to a study in the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior. There’s no correlation between smiles and smarts; judgments are fueled by hunches. “People often rely on two types of biases when forming impressions,” says study author Susanne Quadflieg, lecturer in experimental psychology at the University of Bristol. “The so-called ‘halo’ effect: If they have a spontaneously favorable impression of a person—and authentic smiles can elicit a rapid favorable response—they tend to judge other characteristics, like the intelligence of the person, also more positively. And the ‘what’s beautiful is good’ effect: If people find someone else attractive—and an authentic smile tends to enhance attractiveness—they are inclined to assign other good qualities to them, like intelligence.”
Make eye contact
If someone looks at you while you’re talking, you’re more likely to think he’s smarter. “Good eye contact means the other person is responsive to what you are doing or saying,” Wojciszke says. “If he is not responsive, this means that either you are dull or he is dumb. No wonder that having such a choice, most of us prefer to think that he is dumb.” This perception may be grounded in truth: Researchers at Brandeis University in Massachusetts found that conversationalists who maintained eye contact rated higher on IQ tests than those who avoided someone’s gaze.
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