75: Playing dumb

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
75: Playing dumb


Do you ever decide to play dumb? Why?

Show notes and links:
Low-status monkeys “play dumb” when learning in mixed social groups (National Institutes of Health)
Manipulation by acting dumb (Counseling Resource)
Playing Dumb for Fun and Profit (Huffington Post)
Girls feel they must ‘play dumb’ to please boys, study shows (Science Daily)

Full episode text

Playing dumb, or less intelligent than you may actually be, is something most of us have probably done at least once, though depending on who you are, it may be done for very different reasons.

In a 1999 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, researchers found that playing dumb is a common habit amongst monkeys.

The researchers separated monkeys into groups based on their social ranking. Both groups were taught the same skill. Then high-ranking and low-ranking monkeys were put in the same group, and the lower-ranking monkeys consistently acted as if they did not know the skill. In short, they “played dumb” – and the researchers theorized it was so they didn’t appear to be threats to those higher-ranking members of their group.

This particular dynamic could also be playing out in social gender roles in some areas. In a 2014 University of Warwick study, a sociologist found that girls in a year eight, mixed gender classroom felt that they needed to “play dumb” in order to not intimidate the boys, reinforcing the gender stereotype that masculinity meant being smarter than girls.

There’s even a darker side to the choice to play dumb – purposeful manipulation. In the book In Sheep’s Clothing, the author carefully outlines how, for many abusers, playing dumb or feigning ignorance – either intentionally or unintentionally – is a favorite technique. By playing dumb, someone can turn a situation around to focus instead on what they don’t understand, or cause the person asking the initial question to second-guess themselves, both techniques that can cause someone with a legitimate concern or complaint to be put in the position of thinking that they are the abuser.

In short, playing dumb is powerful, no matter why you choose to do it.