Want to Seem Like a Genius? Talk About Light Bulbs a Lot

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If you think you have great ideas, and want other people to think your ideas are great, too, make sure you drop a mention of light bulbs.

That’s the conclusion of a recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science. The researchers found that people will perceive you as smarter if you talk about your ideas as if they came to you in a sudden stroke of genius, like a light bulb suddenly switching on.

The researchers gave 345 adults a passage describing Alan Turing’s invention of a precursor to the computer. The text either described the story with the light bulb metaphor, or as a seed that takes root and eventually bears fruit through concerted effort, or with no metaphor. People thought Turing and his ideas were less impressive if they imagined it as a seed that he planted and nurtured over time.

There’s an important catch to this hack, though — it only works if you’re a dude.

When we think of geniuses, it's men that come to mind.

Ferdinand Schmutzer/Wikimedia

In scenarios where a female inventor was presented, study participants thought she and her ideas were more impressive if they were given the seed metaphor. Women were penalized, in public perception, for ideas that appear to have come to them easily, without effort.

It’s a fairly large bummer that the “stroke of genius” trope still seems to be relegated to the world of men, although this might actually be a double-edged sword. While it seems people will think men are smarter if they talk about inventions like light bulbs, believing this is actually how great ideas happen could stifle innovation. Sudden insights and breakthroughs are real, though they only come when you’ve built a firm foundation of hard work.

“There’s a proclivity to talk about ideas as a light bulb suddenly turning on, but that really belies the effort and planning over a number of years, that many ideas require,” says study co-author and Cornell University’s postdoctoral researcher Kristen Elmore in a news release. “I can see why it’s tempting to talk that way about ideas: It sounds very exciting when you talk about discovery in those terms, but it may have unintended effects.”

Real genius, in the end, probably requires both the careful nurturing of ideas, and sudden flashes of insight. But if you only want people to think you’re smart, you’d be well served to emphasize one over the other.

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