Episode 120: Big Words Make You Look LESS Intelligent

MichaelCognition, Intelligence and Language8 Comments

Have you ever deliberately replaced small words with bigger ones in order to sound more intelligent? Guess what – it usually doesn’t work. In a series of studies Daniel Oppenheimer showed that writers actually came across as less intelligent when they used big words where smaller ones would have worked just as well. The bottom line: take the time to understand what you want to say and then say it in plain, ordinary language.


If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough – Albert Einstein

…the first step towards clarity is writing simply. – Daryl Bem

Resources for this Episode

  • Oppenheimer, D. (2006). Consequences of erudite vernacular utilized irrespective
    of necessity: Problems with using long words needlessly. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 20, 139-156.
  • Diemand-Yauman, C., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Vaughan, E. (2010). Fortune favors the Bold (and the Italicized): Effects of disfluency on educational outcomes. Cognition.
  • Alter, A. L., & Oppenheimer, D. M. (2008). Easy on the mind, easy on the wallet: The effects of familiarity and fluency on currency valuation. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, 15, 985-990.
  • Dr. Oppenheimer has a web page for his Oppenheimer Lab where you’ll find lots of other interesting papers.

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8 Comments on “Episode 120: Big Words Make You Look LESS Intelligent”

  1. Hi Michael: The author’s website indicates that this paper is a 2006 Ignoble Prize winner (mentioned on TIPs). Also SSCI indicates 13 citations of this article; however, most are by the author in subsequent works (nice evidence of self citation).

  2. I didn’t know this Blaine. Where can I find out about this ignoble prize (I’ll Google it).

  3. I think you’ve missed the whole point of writing complexly. Obviously it’s better to write clearly & simply when you have a distinct point to make and solid evidence to support it.

    But surely you’ve been in the situation of having to fill up a number of pages on a topic that you think is stupid and have little or nothing to say about. Complex writing obscures the lack of content in your writing while also filling up space. See the Sokal hoax for an example which contradicts the study featured in the podcast.

  4. Just listening now to the podcast… Just wondering if there is something else in play when the evaluators judge whether or not to accept an applicant… Specially if it’s in literature, perhaps the more pedantic or complex sentences represent a threat to the evaluators (competition), or that their difficulty in understanding the sentences makes them feel somewhat less intelligent, therefore less likely to accept the applicant?

    Regarding the weird font, I’d personally reject the applicant just because it’s a voluntary choice of a hard-to-read font, and looks goofy. It’s like showing up at the interview in a clown suit.

  5. Fantastic stuff, very enjoyable podcast. I tended to write very simply at university, based on the idea that essays aren’t meant to make you sound intelligent, they’re meant to demonstrate a sound understanding of the topic.
    Interestingly, Australian universities tend to specify font style and size in their marking requirements, so I was surprised to hear that other fonts are even available to college/university students. Just a bit of interesting trivia 😉
    Finally, in relation to the experiment that produced the surprising findings of a more favourable judgement of students whose toner was running dry, I would suggest that perhaps this was about respecting the “honesty” of the applicants. My opinion is that people often respect and admire someone who is able to say that they’ve “stuffed up”, or to admit that their submission may not be up to scratch – but I guess that’s another discussion entirely!
    Thanks for a wonderful podcast, keep them coming!

  6. Thanks Monica. Glad you enjoyed the episode. Yea, I think you’re right about why the “low toner” essays were rated well – everyone can identify with that experience and as you say, there’s a certain honesty about it.

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