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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, 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.
Want to look smarter? Here are some tips from the latest studies.
If you use a thesaurus when composing e-mails, 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.
Wearing glasses may help
According to a survey by the UK-based College of Optometrists, 43 percent of people think that glasses make people look smarter, and 40 percent of people consider wearing clear lenses to seem intelligent.
“Glasses are easily noticeable and allow us an instant inference without effort,” says Wojciszke, who teaches at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Sopot, Poland. “Many people considered wise—like professors, judges and mature statesmen—wear glasses more frequently than fools. So, any cue associated with wisdom—thick books, fluent speech, even gray hair—may give rise to the impression of smartness.”
Men: Tell some jokes!
A French study published in the journal Psychological Reports found that women who overhear men telling funny jokes believe them to be smarter and more attractive than men who converse about mundane topics. There may be some validity to this, because a certain level of intellect is required to consistently make clever remarks.
“Persons having a good sense of humor show really higher intelligence,” Wojciszke says. “So, men can use humor as an easy and honest—hard to fake—cue of intelligence.”
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 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.”
In the U.K., one survey found that more than half of Britons surveyed in a poll done for World Book Day admitted to pretending they’d read classics like War and Peace to sound smarter. You may seem more impressive in the moment, but if you forge a new relationship, you may not be able to keep up the ruse.
“Most of our daily interactions with others are very short and superficial,” Wojciszke says. “However, we are less easily fooled during prolonged orrepeated interactions.”
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.
Pass on the booze
Alcoholic beverages lower perceived intelligence levels. A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that people holding wine or beer are judged less intelligent than those holding soda or water.
“We frequently see some degree of cognitive impairment following alcohol consumption,” says study author Scott Rick, professor of marketing at the University of Michigan. “That can act as a lens through which we view people who drink.”
Being nice counts, too
Wojciszke’s research has shown that self-esteem rises when people perceive themselves to be intelligent, but others appreciate different traits.
“People will like you not because of your smartness, but because of your warmth and kindness,” he says. “However, besides liking, there is also respecting, and this is based on intelligence, indeed. So, when you want others to like you, present yourself as a person who is nice rather than smart. But if you want others to respect you, present yourself as intelligent rather than nice.”