If you’ve ever experienced even a modicum of nervousness on the way to a job interview or a date, some well-intentioned friend has likely told you that everything will go swimmingly — if you just be yourself.
And you — sweaty-palmed, deep-breathing you — have probably smiled and thanked them for being an endless fount of wisdom.
Now here’s some real talk: Don’t listen to your friend. You do not want to be yourself — at least not right now, when you’re desperately trying to impress the person on the other side of the table.
What you do want is to be a better version of yourself. Science says so.
Consider this 2007 research, led by Nora A. Murphy. For the study, 82 college students were asked to discuss an assigned topic in pairs for five minutes. Half the participants had been told privately to act intelligent and competent; others weren’t given these instructions. All the interactions were filmed.
Partners then rated each other on how smart they seemed. So did 20 men and women who watched video recordings of the conversations.
As it turns out, participants generally weren’t able to accurately judge their partners’ intelligence. (All participants had taken a standard IQ test.)
On the other hand, the people who watched the recordings of the conversations generally were able to accurately judge the participants’ intelligence — but only when they were evaluating participants who had been told to act smart.
So high-IQ actors seemed smart and low-IQ actors seemed less smart. Meanwhile, it was hard to differentiate between high-IQ and low-IQ people who weren’t acting.
In other words, if you’re smart and you want people to know it, deliberately trying to act smart can make it easier for people to understand just how smart you are.
A 2012 study, led by Lauren J. Human, extends these findings. For this study, 24 college students were given several “getting-acquainted” questions and were told to present their answers to a webcam.
Some participants were told “that we are not interested in your answers per se, we are more interested in how it feels for you to answer them in this format.” Others were told to “try to make a good impression when you answer the questions, as you would if you were speaking to a person you just met or had just started dating. … try to put your best face forward.”
Unbeknownst to the students, another group of 66 undergrads was going to review the videos and judge their personalities, intelligence, attractiveness, and likability.
Results showed that the judges were more accurate in assessing students who had been told to make a good impression. (All 24 students in the videos had taken personality and intelligence tests beforehand.) Moreover, the actors were judged more positively, on average, than the non-actors.
These findings also suggest that if you’re smart, nice, pretty — whatever — if you aim to impress, you’ll probably come off that way.
Of course, one caveat here is that the smart participants who acted smart only seemed intelligent to observers, and not necessarily to their conversation partners. So at this point, it’s unclear whether you can use the same strategy to convince the person sitting across from you that you’re a genius.
The other important caveat is that if you’re not so smart, but you want to seem that way, “acting smart” might end up backfiring.
Still, this research suggests that impression management can be a useful tool to play up your positive qualities. If you know you’re a smartypants, for example, and you’re worried about making a good impression, try to act you think the way an intelligent person would act. We have some suggestions, if you need them.
Now go forth into that job interview or date and wow ’em.
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