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09 February 2012

Look smarter — write more plainly

It’s scientifically proven — people who read simply-written text think the author is more intelligent.

Daniel Oppenheimer, an associate professor at Princeton University, has published a paper on five experiments to check how complexity of writing correlated with the reader’s view of the writer’s intelligence.

The results, surprisingly, show that readers of complex text think the authors are less, not more, intelligent.

In Experiment 1, for example, he took graduate school admission essays and created a complex version. He substituted every noun, verb and adjective with the longest entry in the Microsoft Word 2000 thesaurus. He used a similar process to create a ‘medium complexity’ version. He tested all three versions with readers, and asked them to rate the author’s intelligence.

He writes, ‘The results of Experiment 1 suggest that, contrary to prevailing wisdom, increasing the complexity of a text does not cause an essay’s author to seem more intelligent. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.’

The findings fly in the face of writers’ assumptions. Oppenheimer said that 110 undergraduates at Stanford University were polled about their writing habits. Four out of five said they made their writing more complex to make them appear smarter. Nearly two-thirds said they used a thesaurus to find more complex words to give an impression that their writing is ‘more valid’ and they are more intelligent.

The opposite is proven to be true. Write clearly and simply, and your readers will think you’re smarter.

Read 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly' 

Oppenheimer, D. ‘Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly’. Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 20 (2006): 139–156.

1 comment:

  1. Replacing each noun, verb and adjective in a text with its longest synonym in the thesaurus results in a text that sounds daft. What an amazing discovery! And of course the experiment utterly banalizes the differences between 'plain' and 'complex' writing, which aren't just lexical but are at the very least (and much more importantly) syntactical as well. Let's make two writers - one plain, the other more lyrical (and you can be lyrical about science, too) - write a series of texts on the same subjects and then ask respondents to evaluate them, if we really must conduct such experiments. No?