It’s great to be smart, but intelligence is a hard thing to pin down. In many cases, how smart people think you are is just as important as how smart you actually are.
“I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.” -Woodrow Wilson
As it turns out, intelligence only explains about 20% of how you do in life; much of the other 80% comes down to emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ is a skill that’s so important that 90% of top performers in the workplace have high EQs and people with high EQs make $28,000 more annually than those with low EQs.
The hallmark of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, which involves not just knowing how you are but also how other people perceive you. People with high emotional intelligence are masters of influence—they’re skilled at altering their behavior to make the most of a given situation.
You might not be able to alter your genetics, but there are some proven strategies that can help you appear to be smarter. Some of these strategies seem arbitrary, but research shows they make a massive difference. That makes this good information to have, especially when you need to sway someone to your way of thinking.
Use a middle initial. John F. Kennedy. Franklin D. Roosevelt. It turns out there might be a reason that so many people who hold a prominent place in history used a middle initial. Not only does using a middle initial enhance your perceived social status, it also boosts expectations of intelligence capacity and performance. In one study, participants were asked to read and rate Einstein’s essay on the theory of relativity, with authorship being attributed to either David Clark, David F. Clark, David F. P. Clark, or David F. P. R. Clark. Not only did David F. Clark get higher ratings than David Clark, David F. P. R. Clark outdid them all. In another study, participants were asked to choose team members. For academic competitions, people who used middle initials were selected more frequently than those who didn’t. (It was quite a different story for athletic competitions.) So, if you want a quick perceived IQ boost, start using that middle initial.
Make graphs. Research conducted at Cornell suggests that people are more likely to trust a source if it contains graphs. In one of the Cornell studies, participants read a document on the effectiveness of a new cold medication. One report contained a graph; the other didn’t. Other than that, they were exactly the same. Still, 96% of the participants who read the report with a graph believed the claims, while only 67% percent of those who read the document without a graph thought the same. So, next time you create a document, stick in a graph. It doesn’t have to be complex; it just has to be accurate.
Skip that drink. And that’s not just because people tend to do stupid things when they’ve been drinking. A joint study conducted by the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania revealed that merely seeing someone hold a drink is enough to make them seem less intelligent. It’s not that we assume less intelligent people are more likely to drink; it’s that the perceived correlation between drinking and cognitive impairment is so strong that we assume impairment even if there isn’t any. For example, although job candidates frequently think that ordering a glass of wine over a dinner interview will make them appear intelligent and worldly, it actually makes them come across as less intelligent and less hirable. There’s even a name for it: the “imbibing idiot bias.”
Believe in yourself. Nothing projects intelligence quite like confidence. When you believe in yourself, it shows, and research shows that believing in yourself improves your performance on cognitive tasks. Self-doubt, on the other hand, impairs your performance. What’s worse is that other people pick up on this doubt, which makes you appear less intelligent to them. If you want people to believe in you, you have to believe in yourself.
Write simply. If you’re really smart, you shouldn’t have to use big words to broadcast it. True intelligence speaks for itself, so you don’t have to show off your impressive vocabulary. In addition, you always run the chance of being wrong. Using a big word incorrectly makes you look, well, not so smart. So, if you want to appear more intelligent, stop studying the dictionary and just focus on communicating effectively.
Speak expressively. Communication expert Leonard Mlodinow makes the case that even if two people say exactly the same thing, the one who says it most expressively will be perceived as being smarter. “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,” Mlodinow said. If you want to come across as more intelligent, modulate your speech by varying your pitch, volume, speed, and energy level.
Look ’em in the eye. We know we’re supposed to do this anyway—it’s good manners, right? That’s true, but it also makes you look smarter. In a study conducted at Loyola University, participants who intentionally managed their eye contact scored significantly higher on perceived intelligence.
Wear nerd glasses. Did your mom ever tell you to be nice to the nerds, because you’ll probably be working for them someday? As usual, mom was onto something. Research shows that people wearing glasses—especially thick, full-framed ones—are perceived as being more intelligent. So, if you want to seem smarter (when you’re giving a presentation, perhaps?), leave the contacts at home and wear your glasses.
Keep pace with the crowd. I mean this one literally. I know it may sound silly, but research conducted at Boston University shows that it’s true. It’s called the “timescale bias,” and it refers to our tendency to attribute greater intelligence—based on mental attributes like consciousness, awareness, and intention—to people who do things at about the same speed as everyone else. If you want to look smarter, you need to stop dawdling, but you also need to stop scurrying around like some crazed robot.
Dress for success. This one should be no surprise. Extensive research shows that how you dress affects how people see you. Dressing well makes you seem more intelligent, and showing skin makes you seem less intelligent, as it directs people’s attention to your body rather than to your mind. But did you know that how you dress also affects your performance? A recent study by Northwestern University found that making people wear lab coats improved their performance in tasks that required intelligence and concentration.
Bringing It All Together
Intelligence (IQ) is fixed at an early age. You might not be able to change your IQ, but you can definitely alter the way people perceive you. When it comes to succeeding in the real world, perception is half the battle.
What are some other things that make people seem intelligent? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.