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. Try using these fancy words that will make you sound smarter.
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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.