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The Scientific Reason Men Play Dumb

There's evidence that these idiots are smarter than they look.

When men play dumb it might seem manipulative but it is actually a way of conveying warmth, psychologists say. Although playing the fool may not seem like the most likable trait, research suggests that there is some truth to the trope of the lovable idiot and bumbling dad. “There’s a tradeoff between being warm and being smart,” Susan Fiske, a psychology professor at Princeton University who’s researched why people play dumb, told Fatherly.

“You seem nicer if you play dumb, and you seem smarter if you act colder.”  

Individuals tend to use warmth and competence as dimensions to gauge the intentions of others, research shows. People often get stereotyped as either warm and incompetent or competent and cold, as a result. There’s some evidence that, over time, a certain language can develop around the power dynamics these stereotypes create, and people in high-status might try to seem less competent than they are in instances where they want to be more approachable, just a people of lower status might come of colder as a way to seem more competent.

To learn more about how people play dumb, Fiske and her colleagues conducted four separate experiments that included over 700 people. Results confirmed that people consistently attached coldness to competence, and that people in positions of power were not only aware of this, but also uncomfortable enough about it to occasionally play dumb. This occurs “whenever someone cares about being liked more than about being respected,” Fiske explains. While it may seem manipulative, the desire to convey warmth is normal and not malicious, she says. 

Men are not the only ones who feign ignorance, but they’re more likely to do so in status-dependent situations. Women play dumb as well, and they might do it more often because there’s more social pressure for women to be liked, Fiske explains. And men who play dumb are not always trying to show warmth, she cautions. In romantic relationships, playing dumb can be used as a way to avoid and block communication.

“Men play dumb because they feel like when their girlfriend or wife is yelling, if they just get quiet in stonewall, their wife or girlfriend will stop yelling. However, this is actually the opposite,” marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind told Fatherly, adding that this just makes their frustrated partners get louder. In these instances, instead, it’s better for men to respond and communicate their feelings rather than avoid confrontation completely.

If men aren’t playing dumb to adjust social status or cover lack of communication in a relationship, another possibility is that they’re trying to buck the social expectations placed on them to know everything. When men genuinely do now know something, the only seemingly socially acceptable way out of that position is to act vaguely unaware, psychotherapist Jeffrey Von Glahn told Fatherly. They don’t want to endure the consequences of acting blindly or not acting at all, so they spit the difference with dumb.

“Most likely reason for males to play dumb is to avoid criticism,” Von Glahn says. “I don’t think that most males want to play dumb more. The ones who do it the most have strong fears about being criticized.”