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Advice for spies. And many others

It is sometimes the height of wisdom to feign stupidity.
Cato the Elder

To be looked upon as a fool by an idiot is a true connoisseur's delight.
Georges Courteline

Also sometimes known as "playing dumb", a tactic whose effectiveness is predicated on characters convincing others they are complete oafs and therefore harmless. Acting like an ignorant hayseed, misinformed tourist, Handsome Lech or a Funny Foreigner is popular.

A variant of this, primarily found in teen comedies, is the popular student (almost invariably a girl) who acts like The Ditz in order to avoid being stigmatized as a Nerd; in such cases, the character may be wilfully ignorant, but inevitably faces a situation where she needs her native wits to escape a problem.

This differs from the Genius Ditz in that the latter is brilliant in a single field (or multiple obscure fields) but genuinely ditzy otherwise. Another variant is of someone who is a genuine genius but who pretends to be The Fool in order to avoid responsibility, either because they are lazy or because of some trauma which has undermined their confidence. May appear to be The Fool until the viewer realizes he's just so good at making intentional actions seem like total coincidences that it appears to be blind luck. If done well, you may not be able to tell if the character is an Almighty Janitor, a Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass or a Bunny Ears Lawyer. Or, for that matter, Too Dumb to Fool, especially if the character is good at noticing what is too obvious to be seen.

A favorite tactic of Tricksters. The opposite trope is Feigning Intelligence. See also the Old Master, to whom using this trope comes as natural as breathing; Covert Pervert, where the "stupidity" may be in reference to a particular subject; and Rich Idiot With No Day Job, a special case of this trope. See also Fauxreigner and Bilingual Backfire. Compare Obfuscating Insanity. Blondes may exploit the Dumb Blonde stereotype to help with the obfuscation. A Good Is Not Dumb character is often accused of using this trope.

This can backfire in a big way if the person using Obfuscating Stupidity needs people to trust him or her — only to realize that no one will believe the "idiot". Inversely, if other characters think the person is being obfuscating but he really is simple-minded, then he's a Seemingly-Profound Fool.

This is Older Than Feudalism, occurring in the Book of Genesis.

Related to Beneath the Mask.

No Real Life Examples, Please.

Examples of Obfuscating Stupidity include:


  • Folk legends of various European peoples speak of entire towns and villages of unusually smart folks who purposefully feign stupidity. This article on the Other Wiki sums it up pretty well.
  • The story of Hamlet is based on the legend of the Danish Prince Amled, whose father was murdered by his Evil Uncle Fenge. Amled took to sitting near the fire and carving wooden hooks all day, telling everyone that he would use them to avenge his father. Fenge thought he was crazy - until the night where Amled used the hooks to pin down Fenge and his men under their sleeping blankets and burn down the palace over their heads before they could get free.
    • A female version of the legend has a man kill his tribe's chief and take his place, shortly before lusting after the former chief's daughter. Said daughter knew full well who murdered her father, but pretended to not know anything. Then the murderer asked her to meet him in his tent one night, and she brought a knife with her...
  • According to his legend, Saint Simeon the Holy Fool. He was a simple ascetic monk whom God himself asked to act like a madman so he could save souls, and lo did he make honor to that.
  • One old story tells about a guy who owned someone else a big amount of money and would be thrown into debtors' prison if he couldn't pay. However, he found an Amoral Attorney who promised him to bail him out for four gold pieces, to be paid after a successful acquitting. So the lawyer advises his client: "When in court, say nothing but 'bleh!', whatever happens!" The process starts, and the client indeed answers nothing but "Bleh!" no matter what he's asked. Finally the judge has enough:

 Judge: "Why does your client say nothing but 'bleh!'?"

Amoral Attorney: "I'm sorry your honor, he's an idiot, when I was talking to him, he also said nothing but that!"

    • So the judge comes to the conclusion that the defendant can't be condemned and lets him go. Now the Amoral Attorney demands his money. But the client, again, just says "Bleh!"

 Amoral Attorney: "Are you joking? You promised me four gold pieces! I want them now!"

Client (tips on the table): "Bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh!"

  • The 16th-century Teutonic legend of the Schildbürgers says they were great sages who went far and wide to advise princes — until their wives got sick of them going far and wide and they needed to get the princes to stop seeking their advice.


  • One joke recounts the tale of a kindly shopkeeper and a little kid named Billy. On many an occasion, the shopkeeper would witness older boys teasing Billy by offering him a choice between a nickel and a dime, then laughing at him choosing the nickel, supposedly because the nickel was larger and Billy was too slow to realise that the dime was worth more. Eventually, the shopkeeper took pity on Billy, and took him aside for a quiet word on the matter... only for Billy to reveal that he was playing this trope all along: he knows very well how much the two coins are worth, but he's not going to pick the dime and thus stop the older kids playing the prank any time soon when he gets a nickel out of it every time.



  • The Bible:
    • God himself does it in Genesis - pretending to Adam and Eve that he isn't omniscient. They apparently never twigged, and neither did their son Cain. He also tends to talk to himself in the third person plural a lot, even when unobserved.
      • In all fairness, He does that for man's sake, so we can understand what's going on in the mind of an omniscient being. If you knew everything, past, present, and future, you'd have to "dumb it down" too if you wanted to talk with someone who wasn't omniscient, especially when you knew they weren't going to listen to you anyway.

Pro Wrestling

  • Maria Kanellis was The Ditz as a backstage interviewer to start off, always asking the wrong questions and getting wrestlers' names wrong. Then she had to testify at Eric Bischoff's (Kayfabe) trial...

  Maria: Last week Bischoff abused his power in a way that was both malicious and capricious, and it’s this rash of discourse that ultimately led to a locker room of disdain and mutiny, and it should be grounds for his immediate dismissal.

    • She went back to the ditzy gimmick for quite a while afterwards.
  • Lay Cool could count. A pair of bubbly ditzy Valley Girls who have managed to dominate the division for over a year, capturing four sets of titles for themselves.
  • During a brief feud with Maryse, Gail Kim appeared oblivious when Maryse started talking to her in French, appearing to be trying to be friendly. Anyone who understood French knew Maryse was secretly trash talking and Gail looked to be falling for it. Then Gail dropped the bombshell that she spoke fluent French and hadn't been fooled by the game.

Stand-Up Comedy

  • Brian Regan may act like an idiot on stage, but if he were really that dumb, he would not be such a brilliant comedian.
  • Norm MacDonald does this smiling, stuttering, dopey weirdo routine on stage and in interviews, but a brilliant quip is just around the corner. He won half a million for charity on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, too.
  • The late English magician/comedian Tommy Cooper was an undeniable master of using Obfuscating Stupidity in his magic acts. He intentionally botched his own tricks and acted incompetent 90% of the time until he'd pretend to foul up yet another, only to pull off the trick perfectly.
  • Ray Romano suggests that guys screw up shopping as badly as possible so they're never asked to do it again. "They were out of lettuce, so I got a hammer."
  • Similarly, in "Chocolate Cake for Breakfast", Bill Cosby so horrified his wife by going along with the titular request that she told him to go back to bed.

  Bill: Which is where I wanted to go in the first place. So you see? We are dumb, but we are not so dumb. It takes great thinking and work to keep from working.


Tabletop RPG

  • In the Legend of the Five Rings franchise, this is the basis of the Scorpion Clan's modus operandi, as revealed to their founder Bayushi by the great sage Shinsei. Shinsei told Baysuhi a parable that Bayushi believed he already knew, about the scorpion and the frog, which normally ends with the scorpion stabbing the frog while they're crossing the river and both of them drowning because it's the scorpion's nature (this parable also appeared in the Star Trek: Voyager episode 'Scorpion'). However, at the end of Shinsei's version the scorpion's answer is different: "I can swim."
  • The Space Wolves in Warhammer 40000 are not as stupid as they act, especially their Chapter Master Logan Grimnar. There is a reason he ends up running most of the wars he gets involved in, even if its from the sidelines.
    • The Wolves don't really act stupid. It's just that they're entirely Boisterous Bruisers.
      • The Horus Heresy novels place the Legion in a new light. Leman Russ frequently puts on the persona of being the rough barbarian king. It should be noted that this isn't just a convenient affectation for political purposes; it's also a coping mechanism for the things that he has to do. In a similar way, the Space Wolves socially act like ancient norsemen but are plan their attacks with complete and total precision.
    • Likewise Ciaphas Cain HERO OF THE IMPERIUM isn't so much "stupid" in his obfuscations, but he makes it clear in his monologue that he needs to pretend to be much more of a gung-ho Emperor-lover than he actually is, if he hopes to stay alive and maintain his heroic reputation.

Web Original

  • A favourite trick of Sarah's in Lonelygirl15 and LG15: the resistance. Chapter 3 of the resistance is a good example. Furthermore, while she appears to be The Ditz a lot of the time, she's arguably the smartest member of the TAAG.
  • Although most of the time Homestar Runner seems just plain dumb, in the Strong Bad Email "stupid stuff", he tricks Strong Bad into using reverse psychology in order to win a bet and make Strong Bad lose his.
  • In The Salvation War, Jesus first appears to be a shiftless stoner. Then the angels leave, and he reveals himself to be a skilled strategist as he improves on the battle plan the angels gave him.
  • In Sims Big Brother 6, Alison's strategy was to appear to be incredibly stupid, so people wouldn't think she was a threat and never nominate her. She unfortunately went a tad far with it, since managed to misspell "Apple" and people begun to suspect whether or not this was an act or not.
    • It was also surprising when she suddenly spouted a college-level description of an organelle after a montage of stupid questions. ("Controversy? What does that mean?" "Influenza? What's that?" "How do you work the elevator?")
  • The Nostalgia Chick during Kickassia, where she went from sane (or as sane as she can be) and opinionated to a Sarah Palin parody who agreed with N. Bison about everything. When Part Four came around, it was found out she was just pretending to be sweet and stupid while trying to kill him off and take charge for herself.
    • And then there's Kevin Baugh, who fakes being taken over by his alternate personality so he'll be allowed to keep hanging out in his conquered nation, then sets to planting doubts about the Nostalgia Critic's leadership skills.
  • Nocturne. Possibly. It's debatable.