January 16, 2015

Trying to look smart often backfires. Here's how to do it right.

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This story was updated on February 26, 2018.

    The Wall Street Journal's Sue Shellenbarger examines new research on how people develop first impressions of other people's intelligence—and how we can manage those impressions.

    New: Four questions you should be asking about your managers

    When people measure others' success, they look for self-confidence, clear language, and thoughtful responses, according to Shellenbarger.  In that context, an important sign of smarts is eye contact, says Nora Murphy, a Loyola Marymount University associate professor of psychology who has done six studies on the issue.

    A 2007 study of 182 participants examined what people do when asked to appear intelligent. Pairs were videotaped while having a conversation in which one person had been told to act smart and both had taken IQ tests. Other participants then watched the videos and guessed the conversationalists' IQ levels.

    The research found that, when individuals are trying to look smart, they tend to:

    • Adopt a serious  face;
    • Choose big words;
    • Construct complicated sentences; and
    • Refrain from moving their arms and hands.

    In turn, observers attributed a higher IQ to participants who:

    • Displayed self-confidence;
    • Showed engaged reactions, such as nodding;
    • Had expressive, pleasant tones;
    • Maintained eye contact;
    • Used clear language; and
    • Had good posture.

    Overall, the people who were instructed to act smart were attributed lower IQ scores than those who did not receive any directions. "The more you try, the more it's going to obvious," Murphy says.

    However, using pretentious language, too much language, speaking too loudly, and moving too quickly detracts from others' opinions. Rapid and loud speech projects an air of insecurity, says Joel Garfinkle, author and executive coach.

     "Ask a question, let somebody else talk, and practice long, slow, deep breaths," suggests Lisa Parker, president of Heads Up Coaching and Consulting.

    Experts agree it is best to listen, learn, and express enthusiasm and engagement. Moreover, those who appear smartest "are those who are able to say, 'I don't know," says William Arruda, a personal-branding consultant (Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 1/13 [subscription required]).

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