How to Look Smart

Wear glasses, use a middle initial, and other tips for appearing intelligent
Cristoph Niemann

Choose your own adventure: You’re at a party, trying to have a good time, when someone brings up War and Peace. Finding yourself caught in the middle of a conversation about a book you haven’t read, do you: (A) listen quietly, (B) leave the area, or (C) say something about the book anyway, in an effort to seem smart?

When 2,000 Britons were polled last year about tactics they’d used to try to appear more intelligent, 62 percent of them confessed to having chosen option C. Indeed, according to the survey (a promotional stunt by the nerd-loving TV show The Big Bang Theory), lying about having read classic books was the most popular strategy for appearing smarter. Another strategy identified by the survey, wearing glasses, appears to be surprisingly effective. Figures released in 2011 by the College of Optometrists, in the U.K., show that 43 percent of the people it surveyed believe glasses make a person look more intelligent.

But you may not need glasses if you’re beautiful. A Czech study found that certain facial features—narrow faces, long noses, and thin chins—correlated with both perceived intelligence and attractiveness. Interestingly, men who were considered smart-looking actually tended to have higher IQs; the same was not true for women [1].

Other ways to signal intelligence without opening your mouth include walking at the same pace as those around you. Subjects in one study rated a person moving faster or slower than “normal human walking speed” as less competent and intelligent [2]. Speaking of incompetence: don’t drink in public, at least not at work functions. The perceived association between alcohol and stupid behavior is so strong, according to a 2013 study, that merely holding a beer makes you appear dumber [3].

How you write matters, too—particularly how you write your name. Middle initials apparently lend a person a certain cachet. Participants in a study published this year rated writing samples more favorably when the author’s name included a middle initial; they also presumed people with middle initials to be of higher social status than their uninitialed peers [4]. Typing your initial in the Comic Sans font, though, could ruin the whole thing: a Princeton researcher found that a hard-to-read font made an author seem dumber, while a clean, simple typeface (Times New Roman, in the study) made him or her seem more intelligent.

The same researcher also looked at how using big words (a classic strategy for impressing others) affects perceived intelligence. Counterintuitively, grandiose vocabulary diminished participants’ impressions of authors’ cerebral capacity [5]. Put another way: simpler writing seems smarter.


The Studies:

[1] Kleisner et al., “Perceived Intelligence Is Associated With Measured Intelligence in Men but Not Women” (PLOS One, March 2014)

[2] Morewedge et al., “TimeScale Bias in the Attribution of Mind” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, July 2007)

[3] Rick and Schweitzer, “The Imbibing Idiot Bias” (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2013)

[4] Van Tilburg and Igou, “The Impact of Middle Names” (European Journal of Social Psychology, June 2014)

[5] Oppenheimer, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity” (Applied Cognitive Psychology, March 2006)

Presented by

Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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