If eyeglasses were ever a utilitarian choice, they are no longer. Now more than ever, people who have 20/20 vision will wear spectacles made of plain glass just to make a fashion statement. If you’ve always hated wearing glasses, this may seem like the last thing anyone else would want to do. For those with eyeglass envy, though, it’s a certain look they crave that can only be fed by the perfect designer frames.
Hollywood has a fascinating approach to eyeglasses: Celebrities who appear frameless on TV or in film may arrive at award ceremonies sporting heavy tortoise-shell squares or circles over their eyes as what we imagine to be their “real” selves. Conversely, eyeglasses can become part of a character’s persona, as with Penelope on Criminal Minds, whose brightly-colored (and presumably expensive) frames change with every episode. Then there’s the stereotype common to romantic comedies of the girl-next-door who flings off her glasses to reveal the sexy seductress lurking within. Men wearing glasses inhabit the large and small screen as well, such as Mandy Patinkin’s Saul on Homeland. His steel frames accentuate his earnest gaze and thoughtful actions as calamity after calamity unfold around him.
Despite the ubiquity of eyeglasses in everyday and dramatized life, the social psychology of impression management has given the matter short shrift. It’s generally assumed that glasses make people appear more intelligent. However, the advantage of intelligence is weighed against the cost of looking (perhaps) less attractive. According to SUNY Oneonta’s Michael J. Brown’s (2011) review of the literature, eyeglass wearers also appear more honest, sophisticated, dependable, and industrious.
However, the world overall does not seem to like men who wear glasses. Brown reports that male eyeglass wearers lose out on the impression of strength and leadership. Both men and women, according to Brown, seem to be more socially awkward when they’re wearing glasses.
Brown was interested in the question of whether jurors would be more likely to provide a verdict of innocence to eyeglass-wearing defendants in a courtroom scenario. Presumably because eyeglass wearers are perceived as less attractive, and people like attractive people more than unattractive people, juries were more lenient with non-eyeglass wearing defendants. However, if attractiveness was related to the crime (as in the sentencing of a con artist), then eyeglass-wearing suspects fared better. Conversely, in judging white-collar crimes, the more intelligent a defendant appeared (i.e. wearing glasses), the harsher the outcome.
Race enters into the picture as well when jurors must decide on the guilt or innocence of eyeglass wearers. Black defendants wearing glasses were perceived as friendlier and more attractive, and even more than whites, less threatening. Thus, although blacks and whites received approximately equal guilty and innocent verdicts, and eyeglass wearers were more likely to be seen as innocent, it was African-Americans wearing glasses who benefited the most based on their appearance alone
Social class is another cue that eyeglasses generate. Nicolas Guéguen (2015) found that eyeglass wearers were seen as representing a higher social class than non-eyeglass wearers. It’s perhaps because eyeglasses create the impression of higher intelligence that this is the case.
You’re probably wondering by now whether the type of glasses someone wears plays a role in this whole process. Glasses come in many shapes and sizes, with rims that range from nonexistent to a half-inch thick. There are circles, squares, ovals, and cat's eyes. They can cover half of your face or the eyes alone. Fashion trends in part dictate the choices people make, but within the range of what’s available on an optician’s shelves, there is enough variation to allow people to choose what they feel best suit them. Having done so, they are now ready to be judged by onlookers on the basis of their choice.
And judged they are.
University of Vienna (Austria) psychologist Helmut Leder and colleagues (2011) decided to hone in on the presence of the rim as a variable influencing the way people perceive eyeglass wearers. After ensuring appropriate experimental controls, the Viennese team found that people wearing rimless glasses appeared less distinctive and memorable to raters but they also seemed more trustworthy.
Full-rim glasses, then, do seem to make your face more trustworthy and distinctive, and to draw more attention to your eyes than no glasses or rimless glasses. We can assume, then, that people make their eyeglass choices on the basis of what they (along with everyone else) perceive to be the effects of eyeglasses on appearance. Once chosen, these eyeglasses further reinforce that desired impression, whether it’s to be perceived as honest, distinctive, intelligent, attractive, trustworthy, or (perhaps) innocent.
Another feature of eyeglasses is the extent to which they display brand logos. Although we have no research to use as a specific guide in this area, we can find some clues from research on fashion consciousness and personality. Swinburne (Australia) University’s Riza Casidy and colleagues (2012) examined the personality traits associated with prestige sensitivity, a term that means "favorable perceptions of price, based on the feelings of prominence and status that higher prices signal to other people about the purchaser” (Lichtenstein, Ridgway, and Netemeyer 1993, 236).
According to Casidy’s research on 251 undergraduates, people with greater prestige sensitivity in their clothing choices were higher on the personality traits of extraversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. If it’s Prada you’re after in your eyeglass choice, in other words, you’re sociable and goal-oriented. People with this orientation “use fashion as a means to reflect their actual/ideal self-concept” (p.297). Another group, high in neuroticism but lower on conscientiousness and agreeableness, also care about fashion brands, but do so out of fear of being rejected by others. Although the same behaviors can be explained by opposite tendencies, it’s possible that the bigger the logo, the more insecure the wearer, so this might provide a cue that you’re trying too hard.
To sum up: Here are the 6 cues your glasses provide to others:
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Casidy, R. (2012). Discovering consumer personality clusters in prestige sensitivity and fashion consciousness context. Journal Of International Consumer Marketing, 24(4), 291-299. doi:10.1080/08961530.2012.728506
Guéguen, N. (2015). Effect of wearing eyeglasses on judgment of socioprofessional group membership. Social Behavior And Personality, 43(4), 661-666. doi:10.2224/sbp.2015.43.4.661
Leder, H., Forster, M., & Gerger, G. (2011). The glasses stereotype revisited: Effects of eyeglasses on perception, recognition, and impression of faces. Swiss Journal Of Psychology / Schweizerische Zeitschrift Für Psychologie / Revue Suisse De Psychologie, 70(4), 211-222. doi:10.1024/1421-0185/a000059
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2016