The Eyeglasses of the Beholder

Would you wear fake glasses?
LeBron James, pictured above, is one of many NBA players who do. He’s gone through a number of different shapes and models, but he’s always wearing planos, as they’re called, meaning glasses with clear filters instead of prescription lenses. Some players take this fad to the extreme by wearing glasses with no lenses at all. They’re all the rage.

Why do they do this? Of course, it’s a fashion statement. But wearing glasses is a sure-fire way of altering people’s perception about you: they make you look more intelligent.
NBA players might want to signal that there’s more to them than athletic ability, or be perceived as regular guys, something that increases their likelihood to be chosen for certain sponsorship deals or product endorsements. But they’re just a very prominent bunch in a much larger group: an estimated four million Americans wear fake glasses.
But wait, there’s a catch.

As adults, we are primed to associate glasses with smart people. It works with clothing as well: studies show that wearing a white coat that you think belongs to a doctor makes you perform better at mental tasks, while you do worse if you believe the coat belongs to a painter. People even wear fake glasses at job interviews, thinking they will have a better chance of being hired. But if you’re a kid, the magic of glasses vanishes. Multiple studies show that children between 5 and 9 rate their glass-wearing peers as consistently less attractive and interesting, and they will often shy away from being friends with them.
An episode of the Freakonomics podcast analyzes student grades in China and suggests that a good portion of children who struggle at school do so not because they are less intelligent, but because they literally cannot see what the teacher is writing on the chalkboard. And they’re afraid to tell because they don’t want to wear glasses: a program intended to provide free reading glasses to children who need them has had trouble taking off because families simply won’t accept them. So kids in China are refusing glasses they desperately need while people in America spend hundreds of dollars for designer eyewear that serves no practical purpose.

But it might well be that this shift in perception will soon spread to children as well. Worse things can happen: youngsters in Thailand apparently love to wear fake braces. Pair those with some nice planos and you’re all set.

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