“Your glasses make you look really smart!”
You've heard it before if you wear glasses. You may have heard some less flattering variations on the theme, too, especially in school. Kids can be cruel.
But is there any truth to it? Are people actually looking at the guy in glasses and thinking “Yeah, okay, I should listen to him”?
And what else are they thinking?
Glasses and Intelligence
Let's start with the most common assumption: glasses make you look smarter. There's been a decent amount of research done over the years, and the studies overwhelmingly come in positive on that one.
Broadly speaking — and keeping in mind that most studies are done using American or European population samples — glasses do, in fact, make you look smarter. Interestingly, the consensus shows that they also make you look more successful, and in some studies more honest.
So if you want people to have good feelings about you, wearing glasses seems like a pretty good deal, right? Enough people have come to that conclusion that there are now several manufacturers of “vanity glasses,” which have clear glass lenses that do not adjust the wearer's vision. But don't run out and buy them just yet — there are some downsides, too.
The Unloveable Nerd Effect
People acknowledge the massive wealth and success of Bill Gates, but you're not going to hear many people outside the software industry say they want to grab a beer with him — or hop into bed with him.
That's because glasses are strongly associated with perceptions of attractiveness, as well as intelligence, and the association there is negative. The result is the common perception of the unloveable nerd: the guy who's smart and successful and guaranteed to do well in life, but who isn't a good buddy or a potential romantic partner.
Attractiveness and likeability both decline when glasses are worn. Like most single- item associations, there are limits here — a true gentleman is going to get along just fine in glasses, and a real jerk will still be hated even without them — but it puts a finger on the scale in the wrong direction.
Frames, Style, and Effects on Perception
So far we've just been talking in binary terms: glasses or no glasses? More or less intelligent? Attractive or not attractive?
As usual, nothing's that simple. Wearing or not wearing glasses affects your appearance and other people's perceptions of you. But so does the kind of glasses you're wearing.
Eyeglass Frames and Social Perception
A 2011 study done in Europe took a look at how full-rimmed glasses (with a substantial, visible rim all the way across) compared to rimless glasses and to no glasses at all.
The results were about what you might expect: the more dramatic the rim, the more pronounced all the glasses-related perceptions are. People with any sort of glasses were considered more intelligent than people without glasses. But the rimless glasses did not have the negative impact on likeability and attractiveness that came with full-frame glasses.
Style, Distinctiveness, and Memory
Sounds like rimless glasses are the best of all possible worlds, right? It's not a bad thought. But it's still a little subtler than that. The same study also looked at how much attention was drawn to the face, how distinctive people found the glasses-wearers, and how memorable people in the study were.
The full-rim glasses crowd was overwhelmingly dominant across the board. People spent more time looking at their faces and rated them as having the most distinctive faces. Glasses of any sort also became part of the facial memory: if you wear glasses, odds are that people remember them as part of how you look.
In terms of personal style, frames also give the most contrast with your eye color, and obviously open up the possibility of more colour on your face, too. Both will keep attention up on your face and eyes, where the most powerful emotional connections happen — not a bad thing, for anyone who wants to communicate effectively with others.
So What Looks Best? Glasses with Frames, Rimless Glasses, or No Glasses?
Take the science with a grain of salt! The reality is that you know your personal style better than anyone else. There will always be exceptions to these rules.
That said, if you want some general guidelines, here's how the most recent studies break things down, paired with older data from basic glasses/no glasses studies:
Use your own priorities — and some serious trial and error in the mirrors of eyeglass stores — to determine what the best look for you is.