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Deliberate Under-Performance

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Susie: I got an A! What did you get?
Calvin: I'd hate to be you; I got a C+.
Susie: Why on earth would you rather get a C than an A?!
Calvin: I find life's easier when everyone's expectations of you are lower.

When being graded or ranked on anything, it's typically better to be at the top. You get the satisfaction and validation of being one of the best, the people around you know you worked hard, and it can lead to better opportunities in the future. What's not to like about being in first?

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Well, not every character wants the spotlight of being at the top, the pressure of doing well, the expectations of others. They'd rather be average, or even below average. Often, as long as they can scrape by and fly under the radar, they don't care about doing better- and, if doing better would make then get unwanted attention, then doing worse is more beneficial.

It could be a kid purposefully giving wrong answers on a test, a competitor in a tournament only aiming to not lose immediately, someone panicking when they do better than average, or a variety of other variations, as long as the intent is that they don't want to do too well, and make an active effort to do worse than they're capable of. Similarly, the motivation for doing poorly can also change, such as being to avoid attention, or to avoid any danger associated with first place, among many other possible reasons.

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Contrast The Perfectionist, who refuses to under-perform in anything. For the school version, contrast The B Grade, where a character finds even a B to be too low. Compare Second Place Is for Winners, Declining Promotion, and Do Well, but Not Perfect. May overlap with Obfuscating Stupidity, Brilliant, but Lazy, Laborious Laziness and Professional Slacker, I Let You Win, and Throwing the Fight. This could be caused by The Perils of Being the Best, Dismotivation, or Tall Poppy Syndrome, or for the school variation, someone just being an Apathetic Student.


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Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • The titular character of The Disastrous Life of Saiki K. knows that he could ace every test with his nigh-infinite Psychic Powers, but doesn't want to draw attention to himself and just wants to live a quiet life — so he uses his powers to get grades that are just high enough to keep him in the middle of the rankings.
  • Yoshikage Kira from JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable wants to live a quiet life and stay in the background. Jotaro speculates from the trophies found in his room that he made it a point to rank no higher than 3rd in any given competition to avoid standing out.
  • Kaguya-sama: Love Is War:
  • In My Hero Academia, this was the downfall of Class 1-B in the Sports Festival. While 1-A gave it their all and fought to win, 1-B strove to stay in the middle of the pack, and avoid being everyone's target. However, as Aizawa pointed out, 1-A's drive to be the best is what pushes them to go beyond, as they're willing to take the necessary risks, which will in turn make them better heroes. Heroes who ultimately get complacent and satisfied with their current placing won't make it far in the hero world. A great hero has to always be constantly pushing for more.
  • Full Metal Panic!. Sousuke Sagara and Kurz Weber did this during basic training for Mithril, because neither of them trusted the organisation they had joined. However when the other recruits get captured during an apparently routine mission, they're required to show just how good they are.

    Comic Books 
  • In Watchmen, Adrian Veidt was always brilliant, but deliberately downplayed his intelligence in school to avoid unwanted attention.
  • In the Supreme Power universe, Dr. Burbank has been a child prodigy since he was born, but spent much of his early academic career getting average grades because he found that getting perfect grades led to bullies beating him up and teachers accusing him of cheating.
  • During the Silver Age, both Superboy and Supergirl would occasionally be shown missing a question or two on a test, deliberately. Neither was playing dumb, exactly, as both Clark and Linda were seen as good students. However, the constant perfect scores that their Super-memories would have enabled might have raised questions, and furthermore wouldn't have been exactly fair to their non-super classmates — the latter being the same reason neither played high school sports.

    Films — Animation 
  • In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales' physics teacher at his prestigious new school, Brooklyn Visions Academy, shows him that he has completely failed a true-or-false test. However, she sees through it and reasons that the only way he could have answered them all wrong was if he knew all the correct answers and deliberately chose the wrong ones. Sure enough, Miles has been feeling out of his element at Visions and was trying to flunk out so he can return to his comfort zone at his old school, but said teacher tells him otherwise and encourages him to not quit.
  • In The Incredibles, Dash's parents encourage him to finish second in a school race, because his ability to easily finish first would give away their secret super-hero identities.

    Literature 
  • My Teacher Is an Alien: Played with; Peter informs the kids in school that aliens are going to kidnap 5 students: the best, the worst, and the three most average. This causes immediate chaos, with the top students deliberately trying to get in trouble or flunk tests; the worst students and troublemakers suddenly sucking up to the teachers, and mediocre kids paralyzed by uncertainty not knowing how to avoid being one of the three most average.
  • In The Report Card, Nora is a Child Prodigy, but hates the attention it brings and so aims for earning average scores on her school assignments. Unfortunately, her usual tactic of "get 70% of the answers right" doesn't maintain her cover when taking an IQ test.
  • Ender's Shadow: Bean is just a little bit smarter than Ender, the top student at the Battle School, but performs averagely in classwork because his harsh homeless upbringing has conditioned him to view attention as too dangerous. He eventually starts performing better once it becomes clear the teachers are still finding his behavior suspicious and aren't going to be fooled by what would fool a street bully.
  • Robert A. Heinlein's Friday. The title character is a genetically engineered woman with supergenius intelligence. She says that in school, she was taught to answer questions on IQ tests to hit a pre-determined score in order to not show off her intelligence.
  • Discworld
    • In Moving Pictures, student wizard Victor Tugelbend aims to fail his Final Exams every year - but only just. His aim is to fail by the slightest and most narrow of margins - so that he gets to remain a student in perpetuity. But he can't fail so completely that the University can then throw him out. His reason is that he has a trust fund allowing him to live in some comfort - provided he remains a student. The moment he graduates, the money goes. The moment the university throws him out, the money goes. Therefore he has to avoid getting a pass mark of 88% but not to let his mark drop below the threshold of 80% that triggers expulsion. It's a fine line.
    • In "The Sea and Little Fishes", Nanny Ogg (who is possibly the most innately powerful witch in the Ramtops, but long ago decided she'd rather be the funny one in the background) carefully chooses a trick for the Witch Trials that shows she's joining in but is unlikely to win, and is worried that with Granny not competing and no other witches having their head in the game, she might do so anyway. She loudly praises the trick before hers, just in case.
  • Early in the Apprentice Adept series, Stile is careful to avoid performing too well in the Game, in order to avoid reaching the top five places on the ladder which would automatically enter him into the citizenship tournament.
  • In the first ‘’Spy School’’ novel, Cynical Mentor Murray Hill ‘’could’’ be a brilliant student if he wanted to, but as he explains to the narrator, students with high grades are sent into the field and are always at risk of dying horribly, while students with middling grades are instead given (safe, well-paying) desk jobs. As a result, Murray makes sure to deliberately and conspicuously fail every class that he has. The entire school (save the narrator) are completely taken in by his facade, until the end, when It turns out that Murray is The Mole and was also deliberately failing so he’d need tutoring from the RA and have the access to steal all of her files about the students and the school.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Dog with a Blog: Tyler is revealed to secretly be a math genius, but chooses to get lower grades in school out of fear it will upset his social status.
  • Good Luck Charlie: "Teddy's Little Helper" has both Ivy and Teddy receive a B in class. To Teddy, this is The B Grade, and she desperately tries to do better. For Ivy, it's at first a miracle, as she almost never gets a grade that high...until it happens again, in which case, she starts to panic, realizing her parents will start to expect this from her.
  • In Awkward., after Ming makes good with the Asian Mafia, the leader Becca gives her a cheat-sheet for the next test...but she only gets a B. Becca explains that if they gave her a perfect cheat-sheet, it'd look a lot more suspicious to everyone, so they're keeping her slightly above-average.
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
    • In season one, Doctor Bashir admits that he intentionally missed a question on his final exam at the Academy, which dropped him to second in his class. A season five episode reveals that he underperformed to avoid drawing attention to his superior brainpower, which is the result of illegal Bio-Augmentation, as well as a form of rebellion against his parents for giving him the augmentation in the first place since he felt they cared less about him than his grades.
    • Bashir also intentionally underperformed when he played racquetball with Chief O'Brien. O'Brien was a casual player, while Bashir was captain of the team back at Starfleet Medical Academy—and when he played down to O'Brien's level it infuriated the Chief to no end.
      O'Brien: I don't need your charity! Next time, you either play your best game or you don't play.
  • Girl Meets World: In the Alternate Universe of "Girl Meets Scary World 3", Maya makes Riley do her homework. She threatens Riley with violence if she gives her any grade better than a C+, as she doesn't want teachers to pay attention to her or think she has potential.
  • In Brooklyn Nine-Nine, when Terry complains about not being able to score higher than 70% on the practice lieutenant's exam, Gina says it's a good thing:
    Gina: C-. The perfect grade. You pass, but you're still hot.
  • In an episode of Modern Family, Haley does this when she has to bake cupcakes for school in order to trick her Mother into doing all the work. By the end of the episode, her Mother catches on and makes her bake the cupcakes by herself. The results are quite lethal, causing her brother's mouth to go numb, though it was implied she was still trying to pull this off.
  • In The Orville, LaMarr came from a farming colony where everyone was focused on bare survival and no one had the time or inclination to deal with a genius kid like him. So, he deliberately hid how smart he was so he wouldn't get in trouble, a bad habit that followed him until Kelly Grayson looked over his aptitude scores and questioned why he was acting stupid.
    • Downplayed in the same series when the ship was outfitted with new shields and they were sent into a war games scenario to test them. Helmsman Malloy is so good at evading the other ship's attacks that Captain Mercer has to remind Malloy that they want to take a hit to test those shields.
      Malloy: Aye, sir. Dumbing it down!
  • House of Anubis: Eddie admits he skips 15-20% of his classes- it's just enough to maintain his reputation, but not to be kicked out of school.

    Video Games 
  • In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Sylvain intentionally shirks his studies and skips training to flirt with girls because he's tired of the expectations placed on him for bearing a Crest. As shown by his wide range of proficiencies, he's actually good at nearly anything he puts his mind to, he just doesn't want the attention.

    Western Animation 
  • In The Adventures of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius episode "Trading Faces", where Jimmy Neutron and Cindy Vortex switch brains, at one point had Jimmy and Cindy taking advantage of the situation by intentionally doing things that would make life harder for each other. One scene has them deliberately flunk their tests just so the other person would get a failing grade out of spite.
  • Spud in American Dragon: Jake Long is revealed to a be a Child Prodigy in the second season of the series, but purposefully scores low as he happy being lackadaisical and doesn't want any type of expectation put on him, especially due to an overbearing father. Considering that when Jake and Trixie trick him into actually scoring high, he nearly gets used by Jake's enemy Eli Pandarious, he's got a point.
  • Rick and Morty: Summer says in "Lawnmower Dog" that she chooses to gets C's in school out of the belief that smarter people are always meaner.
  • In the series My Gym Partner's a Monkey, it's revealed that Adam Lyon's friends intentionally bomb any tests they take because if they were to achieve good scores, they would be placed with the spiffies, a group of super-nerds led by a particularly egotistical dolphin.

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