In a poll of 110 Stanford undergrads, most admitted they’d changed the words in an academic essay to sound more intelligent by using complicated language.
Chances are good they ended up making themselves look foolish instead.
Research suggests that using big words when they’re not really necessary is a recipe for disaster, since people generally perceive authors who use simpler language as smarter.
The study, led by Daniel M. Oppenheimer, Ph.D., included a series of experiments designed to test this counterintuitive phenomenon.
In one experiment, researchers selected a sociology dissertation abstract with lots of long words and created a “simplified” version by replacing every word of nine or more letters with its second shortest entry in the Microsoft Word 2000 thesaurus. Then they asked 35 Stanford undergrads to read the dissertation and rate both the author’s intelligence and how difficult the writing was to understand.
Results showed that the simplified version was perceived as less complex — and its author was judged as more intelligent.
Interestingly, another experiment found that even famous thinkers are perceived as more intelligent when their writing is simpler. Students read a passage from Rene Descartes’ “Meditation IV,” but only some were told Descartes was the author. (They all knew that Descartes was a 17th century French philosopher, but they may not have read this specific work.)
Half the students read a simpler English translation and half the students read a more complex one. Sure enough, participants rated the author as more intelligent when the writing was easier to understand — even when that author was obviously Descartes.
To be sure, science suggests that a more robust vocabulary is linked to higher intelligence. But the takeaway here seems to be that trying to sound erudite generally backfires.
If the only word that fully captures the thoughts and feelings you want to communicate happens to be an SAT word, go ahead and use it. On the other hand, if you can articulate your thoughts more simply, there’s no need to go thumbing through the thesaurus. You’ll seem more impressive if you don’t.