How to Look Smarter, According to Science

Just try not to prove them wrong.


Maybe you’re trying to land a job. Or maybe you’re stuck in class while some intellectual nerds are debating something or other and you feel left behind. Or maybe you just want to impress some cutie. If you want to look smart, here are the five best techniques — or as researchers refer to them, “impression management strategies.”

It can be as simple as using a middle initial or just slipping on a pair of glasses. Here are more tips and why they work according to science.

We celebrated Roger Ebert's opinions because they were so critical of media. And the glasses didn't hurt either.

Getty Images / Kevin Winter

Become a critic.

One of the most significant ways that people try to boost their intelligence, or at least people’s perception of it, is by becoming hypercritical. After all, you must be hella insightful if you can point out the flaws in a film or someone else’s views.

In a study where participants were told to assess a film and then an essay while trying to either appear smart or be well-liked, the “appear smarter” group rated both the film and essay as worse than both the “well-liked group” and the control. Meanwhile, participants assumed that those with more neutral or positive opinions weren’t as intelligent. According to the study, people who wanted to appear smarter deliberately chose worse films so that they would have more to pick on, indicating an automatic association within our society.

The key is to find a way to be critical without being a jerk, which is unfortunately much harder than it is to just put things down. But it’s an important distinction that will help with another thing that people associate with intelligence.

That smile tells us that Elon Musk is on to something.

Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Make eye contact and smile.

In a 2007 experiment, it was found that people who made and held eye contact with someone during a discussion were seen as more intelligent than those who looked down or away from the person to whom they were speaking. In fact, people who failed to maintain eye contact were rated as being less intelligent than they actually were, because they felt disconnected from what the person was saying — tying into how we associate intelligence with confidence.

So no matter what it is you have to say, make sure to look someone in the eye while you’re saying it — they may be more focused on that than the content.

And while you’re at it, flash a smile every now and then. Scientific research has shown time and time again that people associate expressions of positive emotions with intelligence. While speaking expressively in general will make you seem smarter than if you use a monotone, expressions of happiness are particularly correlated with perceptions of intelligence. This finding comes from a study where people guessed the intelligence of people’s faces. It just so turns out that the people who had higher IQs were smiling more — and people correctly identified them as such.

But this isn’t too surprising since positive emotions are also associated with attractiveness and people’s assumptions about socioeconomic class. In fact, all of these things are tied together in a number of ways. So if you want to look even smarter…

Would you trust these doctors if they wore ratty tshirts?

Getty Images / Brad Barket

Dress nicely on a regular basis.

Erin Binns, the director of career planning at Milwaukee’s Marquette University Law School, published an article in 2014 urging law students to spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars on their job interview outfits. Citing the power and importance of a good first impression, Binns explained in detail exactly which expenses were necessary for students hoping to break from the pack. Among the list were tailored suits, leather portfolios, and fresh haircuts.

Is it all worth it? Finances aside, psychological research suggests that wearing nice clothes will make people think that you’re smarter. Again, this ties back into the links among attractiveness, intelligence, and wealth. If you want the full effect, this strategy is important; improving your wardrobe not only tricks the people around you but makes you think that you’re smarter as well.

In a 2012 study, it was found that students who worked while wearing a lab coat actually worked harder because they simply felt smarter.

When leaders act with conviction, we tend to trust that they know what they're talking about.

Getty Images / Astrid Riecken

Take on leadership roles with confidence.

While this may seem straightforward, people tend to assume that people in positions of power deserve it and are inherently smarter. This is especially the case when they demonstrate confidence in conviction, not only in themselves but in their decisions and actions.

Even people who overestimate their own expertise are subsequently rated as more intelligent by their peers. So unlike developing your inner critic, it will be harder to go overboard with this one.

Interestingly enough, scientific studies show that it’s only the perception of intelligence that matches with leadership roles. People in charge aren’t always smarter.

Some things to avoid: big words and beer.

We’ve all seen the ads of a man holding a glass of scotch being dubbed “the most interesting man in the world.” And James Bond, often seen as the embodiment of charm, is known for his love of martinis. But science has a different view. According to the imbibing idiot bias, being seen with alcohol will lower people’s assumptions about your intelligence. Even if you’re completely sober and just holding a drink to be social, studies show that you will be seen as less intelligent and less likely to be hired. No matter what you say while holding a drink, studies show that people will rate you as less intelligent than they would if you said the same thing without the beer in hand.

Secondly, you may think that using long, arcane words will make people think you’re smart. At the very least, they may think you did well on the SAT. But science says the opposite. The ironically-titled research paper “Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: problems with using long words needlessly” points out simpler patterns of speech and a more straightforward writing style are more likely to convince people you’re smart. In fact, people may find overly-complicated text to be such a turn-off that they’ll get annoyed and assume that you’re actually below the average intelligence, not above. And that’s not the effect you want.

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