Your vocabulary tells people a lot about you—but it might not be saying what you think. Folk psychology tells us that the larger the vocabulary, the smarter a person must be. But research shows that when this theory is put to the test in real life, many people have a negative reaction to unnecessarily complex language. Not only are they put off by it, they’re often left with the impression that the speaker is actually less intelligent.
This comes into play most often in writing, especially at the undergraduate level. According to a study published in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology, “a majority of undergraduates admit to deliberately increasing the complexity of their vocabulary so as to give the impression of intelligence.” Of course for some, the habit carries on long after graduation.
To get to the bottom of whether complex words made people appear smarter, the study’s author, Daniel M. Oppenheimer, then a professor of applied psychology at Princeton University, designed a series of experiments.
In the first one, he collected graduate-level personal statements from admissions applications, and manipulated the language to create three conditions. In the first, every noun, verb, and adjective was replaced by its longest synonym to create the most challenging text. In the second, he did the same to only one third of those words. And in the third, he left the original manuscript unaltered. Oppenheimer then presented these documents to undergraduates and asked them to decide whether to accept the candidate, based on their personal statement. He found that though undergraduates are guilty of using unnecessarily flowery language themselves, they were the least impressed with the most complex language, and the most impressed with the least.
Next, he had undergraduate students review dissertation abstracts that were similarly altered, and asked them to rank how intelligent the author seemed. Overwhelmingly, participants determined that the dissertations that used the simplest language were written by the most intelligent authors. Oppenheimer believes this is because they found the complex language alienating and difficult to understand. The ideas themselves were lost in translation.
So remember: the main goal of speaking and writing is clear communication—not impressing other people. And if you are looking to make an impression, the science shows that simple language is best. This way, people will understand those brilliant ideas of yours instead of allowing your prodigiously erudite vernacular to get in the way. And for more on getting your message across, check out these 5 Words to Ditch from Your Vocabulary, ASAP.