Have you ever noticed that the smartest characters in movies usually wear glasses? Take Doc, the brainy dwarf from Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for example. Or Spider-Man’s alter-ego, the science whiz Peter Parker. Even Dumbledore, the wise Hogwarts Headmaster who led Harry Potter in his fight to save the wizarding world, wore a pair of glasses. In real life, children often worry that wearing glasses will make them seem like “nerds” in the eyes of their peers. See a pattern? As you might have guessed, the correlation between glasses and knowledge is not just a coincidence. While we may not even realize it, humans tend to associate glasses with intelligence. Wondering where this stereotype came from and how it has managed to persist? Here’s the real reason people with glasses look smart.
Why do people with glasses look smart?
According to a study from the University of Cologne in Köln, Germany and the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, the stereotype that people with glasses look smart “dates back to the Middle Ages, when monks used glasses to study despite declining vision. Glasses have since been commonly worn by people who perform intellectual or other highly skilled work. As a result, people associate glasses with a variety of competence-related characteristics, such as success, dependability, and industriousness, and most strongly intelligence.” Sliding on a pair of glasses to seem competent is certainly easier than adopting these habits of naturally charming people. While this explanation may explain why society used to believe that people with glasses look smart, it does not explain how this stereotype is still around today.
Why do children across every generation worry that wearing glasses will make them stand out as nerds in school? Why do movies always convey intelligence with spectacles? Why are we more likely to trust a doctor or politician's competence when they wear glasses? To understand why we automatically perceive people with glasses as smart, it’s important to consider why we form stereotypes at all.
Why do we form stereotypes?
Surprisingly, stereotyping dates back to the days of natural selection. According to Elizabeth G. Loran PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, “Human brains tend to favor making quick decisions for the purposes of survival and efficiency.” When we’re presented with large quantities of information, one way that humans can quickly process information and make decisions is by taking “mental shortcuts,” known as biases, Dr. Loran explains. In the past, humans relied on these biases to quickly adapt to dangerous or competitive situations. Although natural selection is less of a threat in today’s society, we still use the “old survival part of our brains” to process information and speed up our reaction times, says Dr. Loran. Essentially, we use biases to think quickly on our feet.
Wondering whether all biases are formed the same way? Actually, they are not. As we have seen, some stereotypes are “survival-based, like humans being primed for fear of bugs and snakes.” Other biases “may be a combination of survival and learned responses, such as preferences for women with larger hips as more attractive and thus fertile,” says Dr. Loran. However, many biases have nothing to do with survival at all. These stereotypes are “learned socially and culturally, like racism, gender stereotypes, and political viewpoints,” Dr. Loran asserts. Using this last category of biases, we can understand how the stereotype that people with glasses look smart has managed to transcend generations—getting passed down from parent-to-child just like these quirky traits you didn't know you inherited.
Why does everyone accept this stereotype?
Although there are differing theories about why people with glasses are perceived as smart, “many scientists believe that this is a mental shortcut that is learned,” says Dr. Loran. “Social psychology has consistently demonstrated that when people are shown images of people with glasses, they find them to be more intelligent, hardworking, and successful, but less active, outgoing, or attractive than people with similar characteristics who do not wear glasses.” Since this stereotype is likely “learned,” Dr. Loran says that the link between glasses and intelligence “may be a product of cultural stereotypes and messages that are present for humans throughout their development.” It's probably not surprising that we accept the association between glasses and intelligence because we have been taught that it is true. However, if your parents never explicitly gave you this lesson, you may be wondering how this cultural learning actually happens. Let’s break it down.
As impressionable children, we absorb the values, beliefs, and stigmas that are present in the world around us. We listen to our parents speak, we engage with others in classrooms, and we untangle how the world works from our surroundings. When movies and other cultural products consistently give their intelligent characters glasses, as they do in Snow White, Spider-Man, and Harry Potter, we register and store this correlation in our brains. Then, when it comes time to respond to a professor, political candidate, or any new person with glasses, we recall what we have learned about people with glasses and use a bias (mental shortcut) to process the information and make quick decisions about the person. Bottom line? Society conditions us to believe that people who wear glasses are smart, and this bias helps us to quickly evaluate new people with glasses that we meet.
So, while your best friend with glasses may have an outrageously high IQ, the two characteristics are not mutually exclusive. In reality, glasses are not actually an indicator of intelligence—unlike these habits that reveal a lot about your personality—society has just conditioned us to believe that they are!