Why Smart People Often Pretend That They're Not

Highly intelligent people often have serious problems adapting to many settings. Moreover, in the workplace, it's sometimes the most inept and obedient who are preferred. This means that smart people often downplay and hide their competencies.
Why Smart People Often Pretend That They're Not
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 18 April, 2023

Are you one of those people who’s been forced to eliminate certain of your studies and experiences from your resume to get a job? If so, you might see your skills and worth more as a problem than an advantage. Indeed, there are specific scenarios in society today where mediocrity is preferred to exceptional talent.

It’s seen in those figures who, despite their apparent ineptitude, achieve senior management positions. They’re chosen by the kinds of leaders who prefer loyal workers over people with great value. In fact, many organizations don’t want new ideas, anything to change, or their authority to be challenged.

In certain cases, functional stupidity is chosen over the innovative mind, the one that with flexibility, resolution, and critical perspective reformulates structures and brings progress. Much of this reality may explain why the brightest people end up feeling disappointed. Therefore, they choose to disguise their potential.

We’re all social beings. Often, what we need most is to adapt, get a job, and not be the ‘weirdo’ who makes people feel uncomfortable and who nobody understands. However, can those who are forced to lower their worth to integrate ever be happy?

Highly intelligent people are extremely reflective, critical, and truth-seeking. This often causes them to feel disenchanted with an environment that doesn’t always recognize who’s more valuable.

Work team talking about smart people sometimes pretend they are not
The smartest person isn’t always the best choice for certain jobs. This fact is well-known. Consequently, many downplay their qualities.

Why smart people pretend that they aren’t

We live in a world in which the most ignorant are perceived as the most talented (Dunning-Kruger effect) and the smartest underestimate their worth (impostor syndrome). While it may seem ironic, it’s actually a terrible tragedy. In fact, the brightest and most competent people are wasted in a system that’s sustained but doesn’t advance.

Added to this is the reality we already mentioned. The fact that often, intelligent people pretend that they’re not, merely to survive. Moreover, those with a higher IQ tend to experience more adjustment problems. Hence, they miss out on many social benefits. For example, they might not achieve a professional career at all or miss out on a good network of friends or a partner.

Let’s find out in more detail why some smart people pretend that they’re not.

At school, the brightest children are often branded as know-it-alls. In addition, they frequently suffer bullying and feel rejected due to their talent. This can make them, at some point, choose to downplay their skills in order to adapt and not attract attention.

Overqualification is a problem in getting hired

Smart people often pretend they aren’t because they feel like big fish in small ponds. In fact, there are so few jobs available for highly educated employees that they have no other option than to lower their expectations and cut back their resumes.

As a matter of fact, overqualification is seen as a threat in many work settings. Firstly, it’s due to there not being enough positions for these kinds of people. Secondly, companies often feel that they’re not always able or want to give these kinds of employees what they deserve.

The University of Western Australia conducted a study that claimed that many managers assume that when an individual is overqualified for a position, they might get bored. Gradually, the belief that they’re overqualified for their position means they end up disconnecting from their responsibilities and they feel ostracised.

There are many prejudices surrounding bright and talented people. This explains why, in order to survive and simply get a job, they frequently choose to lower their sights and cut back their resumes.

The eternal search to socially fit in

The University of Singapore conducted a study that claimed while the vast majority are happy sharing time with friends, the smartest people enjoy solitude more. However, this doesn’t mean that they’re antisocial or that they don’t need a connection with others. In fact, all human beings need to be connected.

However, if smart people want to build a basic network of friendships, they’re often forced to dilute their true selves and create a character of less depth and brilliance. This gives them the ability to connect with others and have more trivial conversations.

When smart people pretend to be something that they’re not, they do it for mere survival. In reality, they’ve realized that it makes their daily life and adaptation easier.

The need not to attract attention

Smart people sometimes pretend that they’re not to avoid suffering. This may seem strange, but it happens frequently. For example, a child with high intellectual capacities often suffers situations of bullying. Indeed, many smart children spend a good part of their academic life subjected to nicknames and insults.

However, growing up as the ugly duckling or know-it-all owl who was always alone in the schoolyard leaves a scar. Also trauma. In fact, on reaching adulthood, they may choose to repress their personality, charisma, talent, and knowledge. It’s a basic mechanism to avoid the rejection and pain they suffered in childhood.

girl thinking about smart people sometimes pretend they are not
Many intelligent women underestimate their intelligence so as not to intimidate potential partners.

The effect of pretending

Highly intelligent people are defined by their ability to solve problems. Therefore, when they’re aware that talent and a brilliant mind are seen as threats, they tend to want to solve the challenge decisively. The result is that they reduce their potential and end up having inconsequential conversations, and are carried away by the inertia of their environment.

This has really negative consequences. For instance, if they remove certain studies and skills from their resume to get a job, they end up feeling unmotivated and frustrated. Moreover, they might decide to feign a certain naivety so as not to appear arrogant, or because they don’t want to make someone they like feel uncomfortable. They might even simply want to hide the fact that they’re smarter. But, this means they end up living a life of contradiction and unhappiness.

Pretending what they’re not, hiding what they’re worth, and creating a character to adapt to their environment dilutes their genuine self. This can lead to depression. That’s because they end up blurring themselves in a society that wants everyone to be the same. However, being different, unique, and exceptional is a value that they should accept, take advantage of, and enhance.

There’ll always be people who appreciate and look for the brightest sparks. No one should ever turn off their inner light just to live in darkness with others. We must trust ourselves.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

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