The Smarter You Are, the More You Judge People—Here’s Why

Updated: Jun. 04, 2021

This may be one of the only downsides to being smart.

You’d think that being a little extra brainy would help you avoid the social faux pas of judging someone based on their looks, but as it turns out, even if you’re smart and more aware of the various cultures around you, you’re still prone to making the mistake of stereotyping. In fact, you’re even more likely to make this mistake. Those are the findings of a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

According to the study’s lead author, David Lick, a postdoctoral researcher in New York University’s Department of Psychology, “superior cognitive abilities are often associated with positive outcomes, such as academic achievement and social mobility. However, our work shows that some cognitive abilities can have negative consequences—specifically, that people who are adept at detecting patterns are especially quick to learn and apply social stereotypes.”


For the study, more than 1,257 participants were invited to complete six online experiments. Tests included studying a series of various male faces with a given set of behavior descriptions. The faces had been purposefully altered so that certain facial features, like a wide nose, were described and associated with a negative stereotype. After looking at the faces, participants played a trust game, choosing how much money to give an avatar partner that displayed similar facial characteristics to the ones they were just shown. Despite the avatars being unrelated to the previous facial recognition tasks, participants gave less money to avatars whose facial features, such as a wide nose, were associated with negative behaviors.

There is good news though, as those with higher cognitive abilities are able to diminish their stereotyping when presented with new patterns that challenge existing stereotypical associations, Jonathan Freeman, PhD, a study co-author said. Researchers saw this dynamic during the participants’ final test, in which they were initially measured on previously held gender stereotypes, such as the idea that men are more authoritative and women are more submissive. After measuring their initial thoughts, those participants viewed a series of counter-stereotypical gender concepts, such as women being authoritative and men being submissive, before again having their thoughts measured. Results showed that exposure to the counterintuitive concepts reduced their previously held beliefs on gender.

“People with better pattern detection abilities are at greater risk of picking up on and applying stereotypes about social groups,” Lick told EurekAlert. “However, what’s promising about our findings is that people with higher cognitive ability also tend to more readily update their stereotypes when confronted with new information.

Dr. Freeman, who is an assistant professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and Center for Neural Science, also notes that the findings may help pave the way for future research that leverages pattern detection or other cognitive abilities to help reduce social biases.

Are you a judgmental person? Here’s how to stop being so judgy.