Admit it: If you see someone wearing glasses, you think that person has a better chance than not of having an above-average IQ.
As a former Bronx assistant district attorney and author of the legal article “Eye See You: How Criminal Defendants Have Utilized the Nerd Defense to Influence Jurors’ Perceptions,” Sarah Mariucci told me that glasses are “associated with reading, significant amounts of reading in childhood days, a nerd persona, a smart persona.”
This fact has made me extremely jealous of people who wear glasses. I just had an eye exam, and, as with every earlier eye test, I was found to have perfect vision.
But should I be worried? Does needing glasses mean you’re smarter? And just where did our stereotypes about glasses – good and bad – come from?
That’s the subject of the latest episode of my podcast, “Margins of Error,” where we go beyond the news cycle and tackle the subjects that we face every day.
It turns out that the history of glasses is far more complicated than I ever imagined.
While glasses were likely first invented in the early 1300s, they didn’t really proliferate until the 18th century, when people started making glasses with temples, so you could walk around without them falling off.
Glasses were not fashionable at first, let alone remotely cool.
Neil Handley, curator of the British Optical Association Museum, told me to look at the people in early paintings wearing glasses: “They’re moneylenders. They are misers, they are government officials – people who we wish would turn a blind eye to us, but they don’t.”
Misers? Moneylenders? According to Handley, this bias against glasses – which was often just thinly veiled antisemitism – was so pervasive, that people who needed glasses just wouldn’t wear them.
But it wasn’t just regular folks who were worried about how they’d look if they wore glasses. It was a highly calculated decision for high-profile politicians, too.
Handley mentioned that Adolf Hitler was a notorious example of someone who wore glasses but refused to be photographed in them. He wasn’t the only world leader who avoided being seen in his lenses. In fact, in their official White House portraits, only three Presidents are painted wearing glasses: Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Harry Truman.
When did our perceptions of glasses begin to change to more of a cool nerd vibe? It’s only in the last few decades, and Handley, much to my chagrin, said that it may well have been because of Harry Potter.
Of course, defense attorneys have known for years that glasses can make someone appear smarter. They have long been trying the “nerd defense.” Remember when now convicted killer Jodi Arias was accused of putting on glasses for the jury? If she was doing it to appear less guilty, the strategy didn’t work.
That hasn’t stopped others from trying. Mariucci pointed out that when a defendant is accused of “a violent crime and you’re wearing glasses, you’re just less intimidating to the jury.” Defense attorneys are trying to get the jury to think “look how sweet and smart and nerdy and peaceful (the defendant) appear(s).”
All of this is trying to get at a juror’s “subconscious thought process” that people with glasses are too smart to have committed a violent crime.
And it turns out, society’s stereotypes may have a basis in fact. I spoke to Michelle Luciano, a behavioral geneticist and lecturer at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. She worked on a 2018 study involving over 300,000 people that set out to examine the human genome in its entirety and see if there’s any kind of genetic marker tied to greater cognitive function.
The study found that there was some relationship between myopia, or nearsightedness, and intelligence, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on, too. (For the nerds out there, there was a +0.32 correlation between the two variables.)
Of course, I’m reminded of a phrase “correlation does not imply causation.” Needing to wear glasses may be linked to intelligence, but it doesn’t mean bad vision is causing intelligence to rise.
So, does a causal relationship exist? Well, you’ll have to tune in to find out. I might even try on some glasses for the sake of science.