Follow TV Tropes


Deliberate Under-Performance

Go To

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?

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 them 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.


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.



    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Dragon Ball Z: The Z-Fighters occasionally hold back to not stand out among normal people, but they always fail miserably because they are that much stronger. And can fly. In particular, Gohan is very proud of himself for holding back to appear as any other student when he goes to high school. He is oblivious to the fact he is the center of attention repeatedly for really not passing as an ordinary person.
  • 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:
  • Medaka Box: Kumagawa Misogi is described as someone who never, EVER wins. But as the story goes on, it becomes more and more apparent that most of his defeats are due to deliberate self-sabotage. With a crippling sense of defeatism that makes it impossible for him to even imagine himself "winning" (even though he actually does want to beat the "winners"), he instead devotes his energy towards "losing" in a certain way. Even in a situation where anyone else would be practically guaranteed victory, he'll always be able to find some way of securing his defeat.
  • 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.
    • Defied by Aizawa in the Quirk Apprehension Test: he makes clear that if a student doesn't give his absolute all in the test, he will expel them on the spot. The fact that there are Quirks that can be dangerous (or at least extremely painful) to the user if used full-out doesn't matter, he considers this a "logical ruse" worth invoking for the sake of seeing what his students can do. Izuku ends up completely demolishing his arm fulfilling this request.
    • It is common in the series for characters to not use their Quirks at full capacity for the sake of not exhausting themselves in the middle of important battles.
  • 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 
  • Greyfriars: In one comic, Miss Stackpole has the means to take two of her students along on a vacation and decides to make it a contest: whoever does best in school the next few days gets to go. Bessie Bunter has no desire to spend any time in Miss Stackpole's company and so she sets out to deliberately do badly on a test. Thing is, all the intentionally incorrect answers she writes down are correct (and everything she thought was correct would've been incorrect) and she aces that test. Miss Stackpole equally doesn't want Bessie to ruin her vacation, so she arranges a running competition Bessie won't ever win. Bessie, aiming to lose, goes to take a nap in an open barn's haystack. Then it starts to rain and all the other students take shelter. Bessie wakes up to think it's evening already and rushes back to school through the rain to not be late for dinner, thus making her the winner.
  • Robin Series: Tim intentionally does significantly worse than he easily could in gym, even failing certain exercises, to help maintain his secret identity.
  • 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.
  • In Watchmen, Adrian Veidt was always brilliant, but deliberately downplayed his intelligence in school to avoid unwanted attention.

    Films — Animation 
  • All Dogs Go to Heaven: Grand Chawhee is the absolute worst horse at the horse races. But it's his birthday so the other horses underperform to make Chawhee the winner for once.
  • In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Miles Morales' physics teacher at his prestigious new school, Brooklyn Visions Academy, shows him that he got a 0% on a true-or-false test. She sees through it because it's incredibly unlikely to get every question wrong with true-or-false; by design, even random guessing will be half-correct, so Miles had to know the correct answers and deliberately choose the opposite. 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 not to quit, changing his grade to a 100%.
  • 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.

  • 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 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.
  • Krabat (Otfried Preußler version): The Master is a mage who gains his powers from the devil and as part of his contract has to sacrifice his best student every New Year's Eve. Juro is known as one of the worst students, but he is in fact the smartest. He knows very well what's going on and just how far the Master's magic reaches and purposely underperforms so as not to end up dead. The Master is vaguely aware of Juro's deceit, but that doesn't make Juro any more suitable for the sacrifice, and other attempts to get rid of him fail.
  • Encyclopedia Brown does not want to seem too different from the other boys his age, so he deliberately takes his time answering questions on school tests.

    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.
  • Don West of Lost in Space (2018), who feels that the Robinsons are all a bunch of overachievers. He tells Penny at one point that his core principles include "never raise your hand," "always sit in the back" and "never, ever be too good at anything."
  • Person of Interest: Caleb, who was very much a Junior Counterpart to Finch, went out of his way to appear average. Finch catches on by the fact that his test scores fell exactly in the middle, not just near it.
  • In the last season of The West Wing, a video of Leo's practice in the Vice Presidential debate gets leaked to the media showing him struggling (Leo is an experienced political operative, but a very raw politician). The Santos campaign freaks out over how bad it looks until the real debate occurs and Leo demolishes his opponent. He then reveals he deliberately performed poorly in practice and leaked the video himself to both lower media expectations and catch the Vinick campaign off-guard.

    Tabletop Games 
  • A common criticism of the rules mechanism in the Extinction Curse adventure anthology for Pathfinder Second Edition, which allows the players to run a travelling circus. PCs are meant to generate Anticipation points by promoting the circus, then put on the show to earn a corresponding number of Excitement points, with a critical success generated if the numbers of points exactly match. This presumably was intended to represent that the show delivered expectations but wasn't undersold, but in practice it resulted in players having their PCs deliberately sabotage their own performances if the show was going well, to avoid generating excess Excitement.

    Video Games 
  • Bug Fables: Delilah and Stratos, a.k.a. "Team Slacker", can easily solve any problem with barely putting any effort as their Bonus Boss fight proves. However, it results in them taking no joy from completing their missions, so they prefer to slack off instead and let others finish the job for them.
  • 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.
    • Hilda is The Slacker because she's constantly been compared to her ultra-talented brother, so she feels like she shouldn't bother putting effort into anything because she'll never get any recognition anyway. Like Sylvain, she's extremely talented in a few areas but chooses not to capitalise on them.
  • In Idol Manager, your business partner Fujimoto schedules for you to appear on a Newlywed Game-style game show to get some publicity for your new idol group. After clearing the first round, you go head-to-head with your rival for a chance for the winner's group to appear on a local variety show. However, Fujimoto tells you that if you win, you'll miss out on a contract that could potentially get you even greater exposure, and advises for you to lose on purpose to get the more lucrative job. Unfortunately, your rival also knows about this bigger opportunity and sabotages themselves to avoid winning the game show. Win or lose, it turns out that the whole thing was a Candid Camera Prank, and neither prize is real.
  • Jamil Viper of Twisted Wonderland makes sure to always get average scores so as to never outperform Kalim Al-Asad, and goes as far as throwing the slim majority of games he could easily win in order to downplay his abilities and keep his opponents happy. This attitude was fostered in his since childhood, being taught that he should never try to exceed Kalim in anything to fulfill his role as his servant. Jamil grew to resent his position, and eventually plots to overthrow Kalim as the dorm leader so he can stop holding back and prove himself as the better of the two.
  • War Thunder: happens when there are tasks like "get a certain amount of assists". You force yourself to not kill the enemy, but only critically damage him/her, hoping that someone else will finish the job. Easier with airplanes, particularly in arcade battles, possibly with machine guns but not cannons. Harder with ground vehicles, mostly because if you don't kill immediately an enemy, it's likely that you will soon receive a counter-shot, or at least reveal your position to other opponents.
    • On the other hand, one could argue that if you hit it's easier to simply land lethal shots, while it's harder to manage to damage enough without killing, so counter-intuitively getting a deliberate assist might require more skill and luck than a complete kill.

  • Stephen from Weak Hero is usually ranked around the 20s when it comes to exams- however, when he wants to make a point to Gray, he immediately shoots up to first place to demonstrate his hidden genius.
  • In the xkcd strip "Priorities", a student deliberately fails one of their classes so that the grades on their report card are in alphabetical order.

    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 be a Child Prodigy in the second season of the series, but purposefully scores low as he is 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 get 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.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: