Science of Success

New study finds that glasses not only make you look smarter, they could even help you win an election

Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, was also the last president to wear glasses in public.
Universal History Archive | Universal Images Group | Getty Images

Want to seem more intelligent, competent and industrious? Donning a pair of glasses might actually do the trick. 

The easiest transformation you're likely to make can pay off big time when such skills are desired in a candidate, according to a study published recently in Social Psychology from researchers at the University of Cologne, in Germany, and the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands.

The study examined the relationship between a political candidate's electoral success and whether he or she wore glasses, finding that four eyes are, indeed, better than two.

"We thought glasses would help as other research has shown that perceived competence is an important predictor of success in House and Senate elections," says Alexandra Fleischmann, lead author of the study, "but we also knew that glasses tend to reduce attractiveness and that can also play a role in a candidate's success."

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) delivers a major policy speech on at the National Press Club in Washington, August 21, 2018. 
Yuri Gripas | Reuters

Participants in the study's multiple experiments preferred politicians with glasses over those without, and, if the participant had liberal leanings, they were even more likely to opt for the bespectacled candidate.

Such findings might shock current politicians. Even though 61 percent of the U.S. population wears glasses, no president since Harry Truman, who held the title from 1945 -1953, has regularly donned a pair. (George H.W. Bush wore glasses on occasion, but not as consistently as Truman, whose specs are featured in his entry in the National Portrait Gallery.)

"Politicians think it doesn't help them," adds Fleischmann.

They may also still be scarred from Rick Perry's mocking at the hands of then fellow presidential-candidate Donald Trump, who suggested Perry added the glasses to his look to fool people into thinking he was smart.

But the only time the study found glasses didn't help secure a favorable impression was when participants learned that the country the politician belonged to was threatened by war. In the face of an armed conflict, people selected glasses and non-glasses wearing leaders equally.

It may seem stereotypical to associate glasses with intelligence and aptitude, but that's exactly what gives these bespectacled candidates their edge.

Since the Middle Ages, Western society has internalized so many images of people performing highly-skilled or intellectually-demanding tasks while bespectacled that we now imbue glasses wearers with these same characteristics, regardless of how deserved they may be, according to the study. The glasses do the hard work, making others read us as smart, dependable, capable, industrious and successful. All qualities many of us say we want in our policy-makers and leaders.

Of course, such assumptions work best on a first-impression basis or when we have very limited information about a person. Glasses won't maintain the illusion of high intelligence or competence if our behavior or work betrays us as lacking in those areas.

In all the experiments the researchers performed, participants were shown only images of politicians, some in glasses, some without, and asked to say how likely they were to vote for that candidate. They were not informed of the person's history, experience, policy positions or other details voters would presumably want to know before casting a ballot.

This key difference is why we should be cautious about assuming glasses could make all the difference in a candidate's successful election bid, says Olga Shurchkov, associate professor of economics at Wellesley College, who has studied how appearance can impact people's success.

"Because all the experiments are so well controlled and the participants had no other information, only the image, any characteristic associated with appearance, such as glasses, then becomes more much important to the decision-making process," says Shurchkov. "In the real world, people would know other information about a candidate, and so glasses may not be as important a factor as it was in a study like this."

In one of the experiments participants were given a little more information. They were told the political party, Republican or Democrat, of each candidate photo they viewed. While people opted most often for a candidate of their same party, they were less likely to do so when the opposing party's candidate was wearing glasses, the study found.

Meaning, whether Democrat or Republican, glasses can help politicians increase the odds a member of the opposite party will support them and their success in cross-party elections.

Rick Perry
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Conservative voters were less swayed by glasses than their liberal counterparts because they prefer candidates who came across as more dominant and in control, two qualities not typically associated with glasses wearers, according to Fleischman.

"Liberals tend to value intelligence in a candidate more. Conservatives place a higher value on strength and dominance; they like a strong successful leader. So for the Republicans, the effect the glasses had may have been somewhat canceled out as it both helped candidates appear more intelligent but less dominant," says Fleischmann. "Liberal politicians are also more likely to wear glasses, so it could be that Liberals preferred the candidates wearing glasses because they encounter that more often."

Even though glasses do have negative associations as well, such as making people appear less dominant and attractive as well as older and weaker, the study's results seem to suggest that when the role you're applying for most heavily rewards intelligence or competence, glasses can be a useful addition. Though whether the benefit would be so great in real life as found in the study remains to be tested.

"I would assume in all situations where intelligence and competence is very important that glasses would have a similar effect and help you," says Fleischmann. "Several colleagues have jokingly told me they are going to wear their glasses more now."

So engineers, scientists, academics and other thought leaders: The next time you need to make a good first impression, say at a job interview or conference or political rally, maybe stow the contact lenses and don some glasses. It doesn't hurt to appear even smarter.

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Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States, was also the last president to wear glasses in public.
Universal History Archive | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
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