Feigning Intelligence

"When in doubt, look intelligent!"

The opposite of Obfuscating Stupidity: A stupid character pretends (or tries to pretend) he or she is really smart or otherwise good at something. The stupid characters will either enlist a smart character to feed them lines, or bluff their way through with seemingly profound statements ("What is art? Are we Art? Is Art Art?") and Techno Babble.

Tends to show up in characters who are so dumb, they don't even realize that Dumb Is Good. Frequently involves the use of Nerd Glasses. As with Obfuscating Stupidity, Hilarity Ensues frequently from a stupid confusion or Double Entendre conversation. This often results in Delusions of Eloquence. See also Know-Nothing Know-It-All, for stupid characters who are absolutely convinced of their own genius.

When done with pure romance in mind, the result is Playing Cyrano.

Note: It is possible to feign greater intelligence than you have if you are smarter than the people you are trying to convince.

Compare with Small Name, Big Ego.


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    Anime & Manga 
  • Ninin Ga Shinobuden has Onsokumaru, who pretends to be an expert ninja, despite obviously being one of the stupidest characters on the show.
  • The main character in Mx0 knows nothing about magic, but he's smart enough to fake being a genius in the field.
  • Whisper from Yo-kai Watch is smart but acts like a know-it-all even when he isn't. He often uses a Yokai Wiki despite saying he knows everything about yokai. It's later revealed that in the past, he was a Yo-kai whose inspiriting ability makes people feign intelligence. After leading Ishida Mitsunari to his death by Inspiriting him, Whisper swore off from ever using his Inspiriting ability again.
  • In Osomatsu-san, Choromatsu combines this with Hypocrite by trying to appear as the Only Sane Man when in reality, he's like his other brothers.

    Fan Works 
  • In Equestria: A History Revealed, the in-universe author and narrator, Loose Change, seems to be a shining example of this. It doesn't help that the fic is supposed to be her academic essay that she's submitting to her University, and any hopes of her maintaining academic professionalism and integrity are gone by Chapter 2. She still maintains that she's "smarter than the rest of those traditionalist historians", despite clear evidence that she's not.
  • Wheatley in Blue Sky, reprising his role of desperately attempting to seem intelligent without actually being so. His success rate is...debatable, but has at the very least not improved much from Portal 2.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Liz Hurley's character in The Film of the Series of My Favorite Martian is a glamorous hard-hitting reporter... who is also a complete airhead. She only sounds smart because a scriptwriter feeds her lines through a hidden earpiece.
  • Played straight for most of the remake of The Pink Panther (2006)... mostly. As an example, after hearing a murder victim's last words were "Oh, it's you!", Clouseau orders all people in the city with the name "Yu" to be detained for interrogation. Naturally, he's saddled up with a Chinese woman rattling off in Chinese. After the interrogation, his partner asks if he can even understand Chinese. Clouseau acts all offended and replies something along the lines of "Do you think I would do all this if I didn't understand Chinese?" Seeing as he's been Feigning Intelligence for most of the movie, his partner (and the audience) look unconvinced... until a flashback at the end of the movie reveals that not only did Clouseau actually understand what the woman was saying, she had also given them a vital clue. Clouseau doesn't pretend to be intelligent, he actually believes he's this massively skilled badass, though granted, when his beliefs betray him he will try to play it off as on purpose. In the original film series, Peter Sellers often commented that he played Clouseau as an extremely arrogant man who was nevertheless just clever enough to realize what a complete imbecile he really was.
  • Otto in A Fish Called Wanda, who liberally quotes Nietzsche. Wanda manages to see through his pretensions by the midpoint of the movie.
    Otto: Don't call me stupid.
    Wanda: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQ's. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?
    Otto: Apes don't read philosophy.
    Wanda: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, OK? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." And The London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto! I looked them up!
  • Done as part of a Gambit Roulette in the 2007 St. Trinian's. It helps that they know some of the answers.
  • An unintentional example in Tremors 2: Aftershocks, when the Graboids first mutate into Shriekers. For the first few scenes after they come into existence, they tear up several cars and the radio tower, convincing the protagonists that they achieved human-level intelligence and actually planned everything out to cut off their ability to travel and communicate with each other. Eventually, they find out that Shriekers navigate by infrared, and were simply biting anything they came across that was hot, whether it was actually food or not.
    Grady: You mean they're acting so smart because they're so stupid?
  • Romy and Michele in Romy and Michele's High School Reunion, who attempt to pass themselves off as the inventors of Post-it notes. It doesn't work out so well.
  • DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story has Ben Stiller's character attempt to impress a woman... by pretending to read the dictionary.
  • In Mr. Mom, Michael Keaton's character is renovating the house and pretending to know what he's doing to impress his wife's boss. Her boss asks him if he was going to do the new addition in "two-twenty," (referring to a standard voltage). Keaton hesitates a moment and says, "Yeah, two-twenty... two-twenty-one. Whatever it takes!" This is, of course, a meaningless answer.

  • Winnie-the-Pooh:
    • Owl; when faced with a note that contains more than three words, none of which are his own name or "Thursday", he first tries to trick Rabbit into reading it for him, and then considers pushing Rabbit out of his tree rather than admit he's having problems.
    • Rabbit is another example of this trope, to a lesser extent.
  • Discworld's Fred Colon sometimes does this when talking with Nobby Nobbs. Nobby Nobbs has an unfortunate habit of asking innocent questions that point out how full of it Colon is. It's implied Nobby's the smarter of the two, but not by much.
  • The Number of the Beast by Robert A. Heinlein features a main character who not only passed himself off as an expert, but managed to get a degree by writing a paper that catered to all of the reviewers' prejudices and pet theories. Of course, he was actually doing this to prove a point instead of trying to fit in with educated society.
  • Invoked by Hercule Poirot as his standard method of Obfuscating Stupidity - he is boastful in order to make his opponents think he is feigning intelligence, when in fact he really is that smart.
  • The main character in The Death of the Vazir Mukhtar is sometimes accused of writing or at least editing the correspondence of General Ivan Paskevich, his in-law and sort-of superior in the Caucasus, so as to make him seem smarter. That is apparently untrue, although Paskevich might be considered a mild example of this trope nonetheless.
  • Used by Thomas in The Dresden Files to survive in his really messed-up family. While he plays Obfuscating Stupidity to the hilt for most of his relatives so they won't see him as a legitimate threat, his sister Lara saw through that. So he feigns intelligence only for her, making cryptic statements and hinting he has complex plans in motion, which holds her off while she tries to figure out what he's doing. Harry notes it's a good scheme, if there's enough paranoia. And in the White Court, paranoia comes 'bottled, on tap and in hot and cold running neuroses'.
  • The Hunger Games: Effie Trinket is probably dumber than a jar of mayonnaise, but she certainly doesn't see it that way. At one point, Effie claims to be something of an expert in architecture. Portia only acknowledges this because the silence was getting too long.
    Effie: Everyone has their reservations, naturally. You being from the coal district. But I said, and this was very clever of me, I said, "Well, if you put enough pressure on coal it turns to pearls!"
Gets a callback in Catching Fire by an amused Peeta when he actually finds a pearl.
  • The novelization of Iron Man reveals a moderate case where the local boss of the Ten Rings, who is nonetheless portrayed as polished and educated, actually manages to intimidate Tony Stark by appearing to understand everything in his workshop... until he turns over the Jericho blueprints that he'd already been holding the right way up, and Tony realizes it's an act.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Kelly Bundy from Married... with Children used the Nerd Glasses/"profound" babble combo to impress a smart guy.
  • As did Lisa Turtle in an episode of Saved by the Bell (source of the "Art" quote). She is a bit smarter than most of the other characters in this trope, but still has a little too much air between the ears than is good for her.
  • In a Friends episode, Joey memorized details about all the artwork in a gallery, then messed it up as he got left and right confused. And in another episode, whilst writing a letter to an adoption agency, he uses a thesaurus to increase his vocabulary. Hearts become "Aortic pumps" and so on.
  • The Suite Life of Zack and Cody: London hires Maddie to help her pull Playing Cyrano on a hot merit scholar, Trevor. The plan backfires when Maddie can't restrain herself from getting into a debate over politics with him, culminating in a Slap-Slap-Kiss. Fortunately, London seems more confused than hurt.
  • Drake & Josh: Drake gets Josh to help him cheat on an academic game show to impress an attractive genius. Hilarity Ensues, leading to the good ol' Be Yourself Aesop... which, in this case, would mean, "I don't care about what's inside. I like you because you're cute."
  • "Aaaaaah, Bach!" In an early episode of M*A*S*H, Radar pursues an intellectually-inclined nurse with a handful of bluffs provided to him by Hawkeye and Trapper. Incidentally, the book The Bluffer's Guide to Music recommends that exact phrase.
  • In Doctor Who, the Tenth Doctor stated to his younger incarnation that he wore his glasses not because he needed them, but because it made him look clever. Of course, the Doctor is very smart to begin with, but still. It has also been theorized that the Tenth Doctor, who frequently claims himself to be clever, is double-Feigning Intelligence-Obfuscating Stupidity, or something. (See the Poirot example above.) The Doctor has been getting into trouble by pretending to be more knowledgeable than he actually is since "The Aztecs" in 1964.
  • Maxwell Smart from the Get Smart series did this all the time, to everyone. He didn't always have someone to help him feign competence either, and on those occasions got found out quite quickly.
  • The borderline mentally disabled Randy in My Name Is Earl seems to be really good at this, once befriending a bunch of business men, getting a job and earning a lot of money in less than a day with just the help of a second-hand suit.
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show: Ted Baxter used to pull this one off with regularity — one instance in particular stands out.
    Ted's son: Mother, I abhor you!
    Ted: Now son, I'll have none of that language in this house!
  • In the iCarly episode iQ Carly tries to convince a very intelligent boy she wants to date that she's very knowledgable, via the internet, studying real hard and eventually cheat sheets just to bluff her way through a day.
  • Jessie: Jessie does this in the episode "What A Steal" to impress a guy at the Intellengincia meeting she takes Ravi to.
  • Foggy Dewhurst from Last of the Summer Wine had more or less convinced himself that he knew everything. On one occasion, he convinced himself that he knew what a "Loxley Lozenge" was and simply needed to bring it to the front of his mind. He thought it was a cough drop. Turns out it was a very rare automobile. He then stubbornly tried to convince the others that "cough drop" was a code, and while they weren't fooled, he did manage to fool himself.
  • Donnie Steven in Even Stevens is normally an airheaded Dumb Muscle jock, but in one episode he decides to act smarter to impress people, and watches a video to this end that recommends wearing nonprescription glasses, shoehorning stock "big words" that he doesn't understand into conversations and stroking his chin a lot to make it look like he's thinking hard. Towards the end of the episode he meets a TV producer that Ren is trying very hard to impress and sees that she's wearing the same glasses as him and using the same techniques mentioned in the video (including using the same "big words" vocabulary list gratuitously). Donnie realizes that they are both playing the same "pretending to be smart" game and goes to warn Ren that the producer isn't as smart as she claims to be.
  • In Black Books, Bernard attracts a girl by pretending to be a jazz pianist. Since he had Manny playing the chords from inside the piano with spoons, Fran gets back at him when she expands Bernard's lie to falsely out him as a genius:
    Bernard: What did you say to Kate? She thinks I'm The Renaissance. She'll think I've lied! I have to go along with all this reclusive genius stuff — she's going to be very upset when she finds out I'm a reclusive wanker.
  • Cory in the House: Newt is forced to do this when he develops a crush on a new girl at school who is a childhood genius and starts to worry that she might not like him if he wasn't as smart as her.
  • The Office (UK): In one episode, Brent is trying to impress the new intern with his knowledge, but the intern keeps referencing things he doesn't know anything about. Later, Brent will reappear and start spouting facts about the topic the intern had previously mentioned, having obviously just googled the topic. Each time, however, the intern will transition into another topic Brent doesn't know about.
  • In the Shake It Up! episode "Opposites Attracts It Up", CeCe starts dating a science nerd named James and forces Rocky to help her in Playing Cyrano to be more at his level. CeCe does this again in a later episode when she goes on a date with a blind guy who is also too smart for her and pretends to like whatever he likes.
  • Double Subverted with Eugene in The Walking Dead. While not a CDC researcher who can cure the virus as he claims to be for most of his first arc, he has nonetheless proven himself to be a Jack-of-All-Trades, a master of Xanatos Speed Chess, and very, very good at solving potentially deadly lateral thinking puzzles. It seems increasingly clear that both before and after the Zombie Apocalypse, the only thing keeping him from achieving true Renaissance Man status has been a complete lack of unfeigned self-confidence. Well, that and some... moderate coordination issues.

    Puppet Shows 
  • In The Muppet Show, Sam the Eagle may constantly seek to bring some culture in the show, but considering he thinks Beethoven was a playwright, it's obvious he doesn't know the first thing about culture.

  • Our Miss Brooks: In "Magazine Articles", Miss Brooks enlists Walter Denton to masquerade as her nonexistent fourteen year old quiz kid son. Miss Brooks had written an fictional article for "True Family Romance" magazine about her quiz kid son, and needed to prove the story was true in order to collect her payment. Hilarity Ensues, especially as Mr. Conklin gets involved...

    Tabletop Games 
  • One Tabletop session that went Off the Rails had an example of this. The kingdom's Archmage was really just a bard with a maxed-out bluff skill and he was in way over his head.
  • Any game of Paranoia has to have multiple examples of this. And of course any example of this is a Commie Mutant Plot. Please report to your local termination booth or you will be terminated.

    Video Games 
  • The player can become this in the original Fallout and Fallout 2 by taking the Smooth Talker perk. Each level of the perk increases their effective intelligence attribute for the purposes of dialogue choices only. So in other words, the player does not actually become smarter, they just sound smarter than they actually are when they talk.
  • Fallout: New Vegas:
    • A man named Fantastic convinces the local government that he can repair a nearby power plant. When asked if he's studied theoretical physics, he says "I have a theoretical degree in physics". No one who's ever met him has fallen for his act, and killing him in broad daylight won't anger anyone else in the room, or in the game for that matter. You can even blackmail him into paying you so that he can keep his job since he needs to support his drug addictions somehow. If you manage to bring the plant back to power in favor of the NCR, he can be found in Hoover Dam later on as the "Goddamn Dam God".
    • Similarly, there's Ricky in the beginning of the Honest Hearts DLC, who brags about how awesome he is. With sufficiently high skills, you can not only point out how his Pip-Boy is broke, but that he's obviously a drug addict and how the details of his stories are completely inaccurate (for example, having an "11mm SMG" and having killed "Deathjaws"). You can either get him to scram or blackmail him into carrying more of your stuff.
  • Wheatley from Portal 2. Highlights include "using a manual override on this wall", playing classical music to convince GLaDOS of his intelligence, claiming to have read every book in existence and claiming the "ace of fours" is the best hand of cards, among several others.
  • In Star Control 3, the K'tang species tries very hard to look powerful and intelligent. They fail miserably at the latter.
  • Whisper from Yo-kai Watch wasn't completely like this at the startnote  in the first game, but would eventually fell in line with the anime's depiction of him with Yo-kai Watch 2.
  • At one point in Anachronox, the party has to board a ship to a planet of scientists, and the passengers all have to prove they are up on the latest scientific discoveries. This is a problem for the very Book Dumb Sly, who can't even spell the name of the planet the game is named after. He ends up having to fake speaking a made-up language so that his Robot Buddy (who downloaded a database on cutting edge research) can "translate" the correct answers for him.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Grisaia no Rakuen Thanatos gives all the girls instructions to follow, some of them more obvious or helpful than others based on their abilities. Michiru, who has no abilities in particular, is told to meet up with a shady contract in a restaurant. Fittingly, she hides her ditziness with a more dignified front and goes through a long Chain of Deals from buying 1000 yen worth of discarded cellphones and reselling the rare metals inside to multiple flights around the world throughout the day until she's completely lost. Throughout the entire thing she pretends to be clever and knowledgeable while following instructions from her phone, but by the time she gets to Indonesia she thinks she's in India and more or less gives up.

    Web Animation 
  • Homestar Runner: In the Strong Bad Email "stupid stuff", Strong Bad tries to win a bet with a viewer by getting Homestar to say something intelligent, even dressing him up with a lab coat, glasses, and a test tube. ("Check it out, Strong Bad, I look a-smart!" "You sure do, stupid.") However, Homestar managed to turn it around on him and get Strong Bad to say something stupid.
    Homestar:"The Grumblecakes will be mine!"
  • Simmons from Red vs. Blue is zigzagging with this trope. While he is the Unofficial Science Officer of the series and good with computers, he's also been stated to be less intelligent than he thinks he is and will abuse the fact that the people around him are either too lazy, stupid or insane to call him out on making stuff up.
    Simmons: If you want me to multiply two big numbers in my head, that I can do.
    Grif: What's thirty-two times fifty-six?note 
    Simmons: Thirty-one thousand, four-hundred fifty-two.
    Sarge: [towards Simmons] Is that right?
    Simmons: Yes.

    Web Comics 
  • Subverted in Bob and George: Mega Man did this by making up a totally random and Techno Babble-filled solution to the series' major time-line issues, and, totally by accident, made a discovery worthy of a Nobel prize. He thought everybody else was just making fun of him.
  • Misfile. Debate continues on whether Rumisiel is genuinely admitting Feigning Intelligence or displaying Obfuscating Stupidity to maintain his image in this strip.
  • This xkcd comic indicates that there are some topics where you can get away with it.
  • This page of mezzacotta — yes, even pseudorandomly generated speech bubbles mock this pseudorandom garbage.
  • This xkcd quote demonstrating what a politician trying to get away with knowing little outside of rehearsed "hot topics" can run into.

    Web Original 
  • The Idiot Nerd Girl meme, although she feigns "geek cred" more than intelligence.

    Western Animation 
  • The Simpsons: Homer Simpson chooses to wear a pair of nerd glasses that were dropped in the toilet by Henry Kissinger. Unbeknownst to Homer, Mr. Burns then assumes he's an egghead and decides not to fire him during a round of job cuts.
  • Family Guy:
    • Peter Griffin becomes convinced he's a genius, but needless to say fails at acting the part. For example, he misapplies "shallow and pedantic," a phrase he heard two political pundits using, to criticize Lois's cooking.
    • Brian becomes this in the post-cancellation episodes, but in a far more insufferable way. While he's certainly very intelligent for a domesticated dog — seeing as how he can talk, walk on two legs, get a job and drive a car — and he's definitely got way more common sense than some of the human characters on the show (especially Peter), he's really not that intelligent by human standards. For example: he uses words he doesn't know, often claims to read things like classic literature (but is almost never shown reading any kind of books), and is just a general, all-around hypocrite. One specific example comes from a time travel episode, where Brian pretends he already knows what Stewie is talking about by pretending to finish Stewie's sentence. Stewie, who isn't fooled for an instant, tells him not to do that.

    Real Life 
  • One of the reasons thought to have contributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates' execution was that he went around pissing off people in power (such as politicians, and, more drastically, religious figures) off by asserting they were doing this.
  • There are known garbage texts that can pass as "scientific" in nonsense-rich environments and really made it to the respective journals or conferences... Including automatically generated ones. If you want to hunt impostor "scientists" in comfort using a robot decoy-duck—go ahead, it works.
    • Social Text published Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity article (It claimed to be about using quantum theories of gravity to stick it to The Man) which turned out to be a parody made of statements specifically designed to be a solipsist nonsense and logically disconnected claims. note  Papers by Alan Sokal has a full story, papers and a simple recipe how to bake such a cake at will.
    • WMSCI 2005 accepted an article Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy, which is a pile of robot-generated garbage. Then guys went to that conference, held a "technical" session and with straight faces gave several more randomly generated garbage speeches. There's a story, papers, movie — and SCIgen itself, released under GPL.
    • Here you can get random Postmodernism texts online, and even permanent links note  to the particular essay, if you liked it.
  • Any agenda-based statistics study. I.e. if they're paid to prove a causal link exists instead of determine if one does, they will use this.
  • There is a psychological term for feigning intelligence. This is called illusory superiority and is a cognitive bias that makes people overestimate their positive qualities and abilities and underestimate their negative ones relative to others.
  • The Dunning-Kruger Effect is when "people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it", or as Cracked.com phrases it: "a short cut in the brain that makes people suck at figuring out they suck." To test the Dunning-Kruger effect, two men named David Dunning and Justin Kruger ran a series of experiments and published the results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999. What they found was that “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Specifically they concluded: (1) Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill. (2) Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others. (3) Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. (4) If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.
  • Anyone who's ever taken a literature-based course in school can tell you that anyone can write a decent paper or do a decent presentation on a book or a play you've never even read as long as you at least make it sound like you've read it.
  • Similar to the above, it's said that you can make yourself sound intelligent or of high authority by merely acting like you already are. Big words and a stern voice, respectively, help out with that.