Leadership Strategy

5 Incredibly Cool Habits That Make You Appear Smarter Than You Already Are


One of my favorite behavioral science findings is that risk-takers tend to be smarter than your average Joe. I love taking risk and consider myself a risk-taker. So I’d be lying if I said my ego wasn’t stroked a bit by imagining people think I’m smarter than I am because I text while driving. And even if I’m not so smart, what’s the harm in appearing smarter than I am?

Very little, it turns out.

When you exude smartness, for example, people tend to give you things for free—such as benefit of the doubt. Thus, in conversations about places and concepts you should know about, but don’t, they take your silence and head nods as deep wisdom. And in situations like job interviews—where others get ripped apart with tough questions—you get a more minor grilling because no inquisitor wants to be shut down and embarrassed.

More seriously, career success, social success and general feelings of well being all relate to how smart others perceive us to be—up to the point of appearing nerdy and antisocial.

Thus, all in all, it’s a pretty big deal to appear smart—even if you’re not. And what’s even better, appearing smarter than you are is an art anyone can learn. Yet, for that purpose, you must appeal to behavioral science. Otherwise, following the advice of random thought leaders will have you looking less like a smart person and more like a game show contestant.

In that connection, here are a few incredibly cool habits you can cultivate that will make you appear smarter:

  1. Avoid asserting recent news events or happenings are reversals of a trend (i.e., “End-Point” Bias). Many people confuse alarming numbers or statistics with the reversal of a trend. For example, if crime has been decreasing for years, a recent spate of robberies will lead them to say, “Things are getting worse.” This is known as end-point bias and smart people don’t fall for it very often. They realize the difference between a given context and the bigger picture. And similarly, if you think before you speak (which is par for the course in intelligence), then you might catch yourself before falling for this bias. Furthermore, if someone else falls for end-point bias during conversation and you notice it, it’s a golden opportunity. You can politely say something like, “I was thinking that too, but I was surprised to discover the trend has been the same…” you come across as both smarter and more emotionally. The habit to cultivate here involves not letting emotion get the best of you. When recent news events fuel an emotional conversation, it could short-cut your thinking.
  2. Learn to communicate your ideas with your voice. Many of us assume we appear smarter in written form, largely because we can correct stufid merrors* without anyone noticing. But researchers at Berkeley’s Business School have found even recruiters from elite employers are infuenced by hearing a job candidate’s voice. Indeed, job candidates seem smarter, on average, if merely if they vocally describe themselves. The key insight here is that our mouths convey our emotions, thought patterns and intelligence. Our writing doesn’t. Naturally this means many of us will need to up our elocution game. We’ll need to learn to organize our thoughts and practice expositing them in a logical order while avoiding words that make us look stupid. Moreover, if need be, we’ll need to prepare to defend those ideas. Finding a good friend to act as a sounding board for all this can help in cultivating this habit. Just make sure it’s a smart friend.
  3. Don’t make assumptions—just ask. On one level, it’s always good to mentally place yourself in another person’s shoes before making making judgments or criticisms. For example, suppose you enter some bureaucratic office and the receptionist is rude and dismissive. It helps beforehand to imagine he or she could be a bit frustrated by the long line of other people. However, it would be a mistake to automatically assume you know why he or she is abrupt. According to behavioral science, making too many assumptions makes you appear egoistic. That makes you appear the opposite of smart. A better approach, according to researchers from The University of Chicago, is to just ask. You might do this by opening with body language and a sigh that mimic the person’s apparent disposition. Then say, “I’m having a rough one. How about you?” While that seems only sociable (and even a bit manipulative, I admit) it actually makes you appear smarter. And in some ways, you really are. Cultivating the habit of asking people good (i.e., relevant) questions is about as smart as one can be. And that’s actually the next habit on our list…
  4. Learn to ask good questions. Ever met someone whose questions sound contrived? It’s as though they read a book and are shooting inane queries at you to seem more interesting. They would, if those questions actually were interesting. In fact, some Harvard Business School researchers have found asking the right questions makes you appear smarter and more interesting. But what exactly are the “right” questions? Questions that seek advice. Coming off with an ego brings you down a notch or two on the smartness index in the eyes of observers. Yet, fanning the ego of some listeners by asking for their advice does the opposite. The habit to cultivate here is obvious: Humble yourself enough to ask others for advice in areas you suspect they know more about. You’ll look smarter and get a good tip at the same time.
  5. Value “stuff” less and ideas and self-improvement more. Suppose your colleagues are sitting around talking about all the stuff they have. One just bought a new watch. Another got a great deal on a flat screen. Someone else bought a new car. A smart person would indulge her colleagues and share in their joy—at first. But after a few minutes, she’d elevate the conversation away from those physical sorts of things to ideas. The reason is not so obvious. From a behavioral perspective, talking about what we have makes us seem slaves to the temporary in the eyes of others. Rather, smarter people subconsciously viewed as having greater mastery of things that are more permanent—like ideas. Moreover, the more temporary things are (say, a great meal you had last night) the more simpleton-like you sound. So scientists from the University of New Hamshire have found elevating the conversation is the way out. The habit to cultivate here is using the conversation’s topic as a springboard to a bigger, self-improving idea. A watch discussion turns to a discussion about time you’d love to spend, if you had it, with the kids. A flat screen turns to a discussion of how nice it is to watch a movie with a significant other. And a story about a new car, well, naturally that should turn to how the best car ever made was the 1967 Shelby Cobra Mark III, with a 427 V8 slapped on its side. (Okay, we all have our weaknesses!) But back to the point. The habit to cultivate here is to gently reorient the conversation. Over time, people will come to see you as a smarter, improving idea person.

Of course, there are also many cheesy ways to look smarter. Yet, it’s hard to pull these off without look pretentious. We can use simple words when speaking. But unless you’re Hemingway, it’s hard simplify your vocabulary to the point where few words come across as having deep meaning. Simplify, yes, but don’t start sounding like a faux philosopher.

And you could start wearing glasses, smiling less and quitting vodka, but that turns you into an actor at the great risk of looking artificial. Instead the above habits might prove easier, more natural and more convincing. They’ll at least complement the intellect you already possess. And, there’s no harm in that!



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