Feigning Intelligence

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
"Oh, pardon me. I was just, y'know, reading up on some Machiavelli. Which I do all the time, of course. Because that's what smart robots do."

"When in doubt, look intelligent!"

Garrison Keillor

The opposite of Obfuscating Stupidity: A stupid character pretends (or tries to pretend) he or she is really smart or otherwise good at something. When done with pure romance in mind, the result is Playing Cyrano. 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.

Tend to show up in characters that are so dumb (Genre Blind), 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.

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

Compare with Small Name, Big Ego. On meta-level this often is passed as Parody Retcon or True Art Is Incomprehensible.

Examples of Feigning Intelligence include:

Anime and 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.


  • 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 2006 remake of The Pink Panther... 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 the end of the movie when a flashback reveals not only was Clouseau telling the truth but the woman gave him a vital clue.
  • 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 IQs. 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 Xanatos Roulette in the 2007 St Trinian's. It helps that they actually know some of the answers.
  • An unintentional example in the second Tremors movie, 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 had achieved human-level intelligence and had actually planned everything out to cut off their ability to travel and communicate with each other. Eventually, they find out that the 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 has Ben Stiller's character attempt to impress a woman... by pretending to read the dictionary.


  • Owl in Winnie the Pooh. 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 questions (it's implied he'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.
  • The two con men in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn managed to pull it on the whole towns, repeatedly. Including that one time when they were immediately called on this publically by someone who knew better.

he believed it was blamed foolishness to stay, and that doctor hanging over them. But the king says:
"Cuss the doctor! What do we k'yer for him? Hain't we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain't that a big enough majority in any town?"

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 and 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.
  • In The Muppet Show, Sam the Eagle may constantly seek 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Video Games

  • Touhou Project Cirno, particularly as depicted in fandom (Cirno's Perfect Math Class is a well known example).
    • In canon, it's not intelligence she feigns, but strength. Of course, knowing ZUN's usual response to the fandom, it's not too unlikely that this will become canon.
  • From 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.
    • 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 and claiming the "ace of fours" is the best hand of cards, among several others.
  • It is an effective method to cover up limited computing power. Do something and correct the decision later if it turns out to be a bad move.
    • Example: Starting to move directly towards the destination while scheduling the time consuming path finding for later.


Web Original

  • 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?
Simmons: Thirty-one thousand, four-hundred fifty-two.
Sarge (towards Simmons): Is that right?
Simmons: Yes.

  • This xkcd chat quote demonstrating what a politician trying to get away with knowing little outside of rehearsed "hot topics" can run into.
  • Clients From Hell have a lot of such folk. For example, this. Or this. People from marketing seem to be particularly prone to such an act. And sometimes it's hard to tell whether you see an attempt to cover ignorance, evidence of patchy learning or obliviousness in action.
  • Nassim Nicholas Taleb described the self-important variety of pseudointellectuals as The Intellectual Yet Idiot.

 their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them.

  • fakescience.org parodies the "educational" posters. Some of this advice is technically true, but still foolish:

With just a little hard work, you can actually train your cats to do whatever they feel like doing. [1]

Western Animation

  • In one Homestar Runner cartoon, Strong Bad tries to get 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!"

  • 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.

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.[1] 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 [2] to the particular essay, if you liked it.
    • Gender Studies may be the lowest-hanging fruit of them all, but Boghossian and Lindsay hoax "paper" [2] [3] in supposedly peer reviewed Cogent Social Sciences journal (claiming that Penises Cause Global Warming) wasn't even pseudo-philosophical drivel, just gibberish interspersed with bogus "references", produced by Postmodern Generator and manually edited to make it more nonsensical.

After finishing the paper, Boghossian and Lindsay said they both read it "to ensure it didn't say anything meaningful".

  • 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.
    • Another similar cognitive bias is the Dunning-Kruger Effect, in which "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.
  • You probably know someone like this.
  1. They even managed to insult themselves further by rejecting an explanation text as not meeting their intellectual standards after publishing this mockery (it apparently didn't "Transgress the Boundaries" enough).
  2. randseed-based, obviously