Why do you seem stupid when you use difficult words?


You have probably heard it many times: that it is better to use simple language if you want to convey something. But is that really so? In this article, we look at what science has to say about this. Because let’s be honest: have you never put a difficult word in a text or presentation to appear smarter?

If you say ‘no’ you are the exception, because research shows that almost everyone (86%) does. Smart people use difficult words, so difficult words make you seem smarter, don’t they?

Lage status

People at low-status universities think so too, because they use more jargon than people at higher universities, according to researchers Brown, Anicich & Galinsky. The lower a university is on the US News and World Reports university ranking, the more difficult to read the titles of their dissertations. They are longer and have more difficult words with more syllables.

Do difficult words make you seem smarter?

So is it a smart strategy to use difficult words? Does that also make you smarter?

“No,” say scientists. It’s just the opposite. The clearer and simpler you explain something, the smarter you are judged by your audience and the more convincing you are.

High IQ

A good example of this is Daniel Oppenheimer’s research. It has the genius title ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’.

That title says it all. Nice that you use difficult words like ‘erudite’, ‘vernacular’ and ‘irrespective’, but understanding the first sentence of the title takes a lot of headaches, even if you know the difficult words. While the second sentence, which says exactly the same in simple language, comes to you effortlessly.

If it takes a lot of effort to read a text, we punish the author. In Oppenheimer’s experiments, this is, for example, by rejecting them for university admission if there are more difficult words in a text. Or by assigning Descartes a lower IQ after reading a more complex translation of a text (regardless of whether you know Descartes wrote it or not).

Because we see the fluent understanding of a text as a measure of the writer’s intelligence: if you can make it clear to me, then you obviously understand the matter very well yourself.

Difficult words lower your status.

So instead of using difficult words to increase your status, it does the opposite: it lowers your status.

Self-soothing

The same goes for spoken texts. If a spoken text is too difficult, we punish the speaker: by looking at our phone, by drinking a sip of water or by touching our hair, face or body. These are all self-soothing gestures aimed at reassuring ourselves, writes body language expert Mark Bowden. Because we experience that difficulty as threatening.

Our brains love certainty, clarity and predictability. That costs them the least energy. If you don’t give them that, they are too busy with the ‘error message’ they get to be able to concentrate on the content of your argument. Very physically, the neurotransmitter dopamine, which makes us feel satisfied and rewarded, is withheld as punishment for being in an incomprehensible environment.

If your presentation is difficult, your audience will not receive dopamine as a punishment.

Relax

And that threatened feeling is not good for you as a presenter: because the less relaxed we are as an audience when we listen to your message, the less comes in. What you want is that your audience is relaxed, because that is the precondition for being able to convince people.

According to the Model of Influence© by researcher Pacelle van Goethem, relaxation makes both following and thinking easier and prevents a stress response from your body that temporarily makes thinking impossible. It prevents the amygdala (the part of your brain that processes emotions) from blocking blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (where deciding and planning is).

Stress with your audience makes thinking temporarily impossible.

Simple is smart

So if you want to appear smart and convince people, the science is clear: stick to short words, short sentences and little jargon, so that your audience can follow you effortlessly and relaxed.

Because “unnecessary complexity leads to negative evaluations,” says Oppenheimer. In other words, if you use difficult words, you look stupid.

References

Bowden, M. (2015). Winning body language: Control the conversation, command attention, and convey the right message without saying a word. McGraw-Hill Education.

Brown, Z. C., Anicich, E. M., & Galinsky, A. D. (2020). Compensatory conspicuous communication: Low status increases jargon use. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 161, 274-290.

Goethem, P. van (2012). Selling ice cream to Eskimos: the psychology of persuasion. Business Contact.

Oppenheimer, D. M. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 20(2), 139-156.


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