MythBusters: Big Words Make You Sound Smart!

Myth: Using big and flowery language, and using it often is a sure way to make you look more intelligent!

As seen in: College applications, undergraduate papers, passionate blogs, graduate student theses and dissertations, and websites dedicated to providing you with big words to make you sound smarter.

Evidence for this: Folk psychology that larger vocabularies must mean higher intellect.

Evidence against this: In an interesting series of studies, Oppenheimer (2006) investigated the extent to which larger and more complex words made people appear to be more intelligent. In one of the studies, personal statements for graduate school were manipulated to create three conditions. In the first condition, every noun, verb, and adjective was replaced its longest synonym possible to create a highly complex condition. In the second condition, only ⅓ of the nouns, verbs, and adjectives were replaced with the longest available synonyms to create a moderately complex condition. And in the third condition, they left the original statements unaltered.

These different personal statements were then given to undergraduate students, who were asked to report if they would accept the student based on the personal statement. The results of the study showed that participants were more likely to accept statements that were unaltered (regardless of their quality), followed by the moderately complex statements, and then the highly complex statements.

In another one of Oppenheimer’s studies, participants were asked to read dissertation abstracts and rate how intelligent they thought the author was. The abstracts used in the study came from a real sociology department, and the abstracts that contained the highest count of nine-letter words were selected for the study. In one condition, participants were asked to rate the original abstracts and in another, the nine-letter words were replaced with shorter synonyms.

When asked to rate who they thought was more intelligent, participants believed the authors of the simplified abstracts were more intelligent than those of the original abstracts that used nine-letter words. Oppenheimer suggests that part of this relationship between large words and perceived intelligence can be explained by the notion that using larger words can make it more difficult for others to understand us, thus reducing fluency and making us appear less intelligent.

Final verdict: Using an abundance of unnecessarily large words can make us look less intelligent, because it makes it more difficult for others to understand us!

Click here to read Oppenheimer’s studies regarding this myth

Click here to read Mythbusters: Learning Styles

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