5 signs someone is downplaying their intelligence, according to psychology

Ask anyone what they want most in life, and the answer might surprise you. 

Go on, take a guess…

Is it beauty, wealth, or fame?

Well, according to a study of over 8000 people, it’s (in fact) brains. 

That’s right! 

A resounding 79% of people surveyed around the globe claim being clever is at the top of their wish list. 

It’s even higher in the USA (84%) and Spain (90%) with the majority picking intelligence over good looks and money.

But it’s not the same for everyone.

Instead, (for those gifted few) being the most intelligent person in the room can actually be a burden. As a result, they choose to hide their bookish ways in favor of a simpler (more liked) existence. 

So, how can you tell?

Here are five signs someone is downplaying their intelligence, according to psychology.

1) They use overly simplified language

Does your friend or work colleague often use dumbed-down language around you? Still, they have no problem grasping difficult concepts or complex vernacular when it suits them.

You think to yourself…

Are they easily influenced (a victim of the chameleon effect) or are they purposely downplaying their intelligence?

Here’s the thing. 

Being smart isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. 

In fact, research shows that, due to unfair stereotypes, it can be incredibly lonely – with the majority of people equating competence with being “cold” or “unapproachable.” 

It’s lose, lose. 

Therefore, clever individuals may “play dumb” or deliberately use simpler language to appear warmer, less competent, and ultimately, find common ground with their subordinates.

Just imagine the “dumb blonde” stereotype. 

They may even overemphasize their physical abilities, engage in self-deprecating humor, or avoid intellectual discussions altogether. 

In other words, fit in by “mirroring” or “matching” others to avoid making them feel inferior. And in some cases, evade being bullied. 

After all, no one likes a smart aleck. It may even cost them their dream job!

2) They gloss over their achievements

Being modest is usually seen as a positive trait. But is there such a thing as too much humility?

Well, this person takes the cake. 

They constantly minimize and dismiss their academic or professional achievements. Instead, they attribute their success to luck, rather than acknowledging their abilities or taking credit when it’s due.

No one can be that humble (or unconfident), right?

Well, the answer might surprise you. 

According to experts being labeled as intelligent or “gifted” can have its downsides. 

This includes the pressure of not “living up to their full potential.” Something that psychologists claim can impact their well-being and sense of life satisfaction (fulfillment) into adulthood. 

It may also affect their ability to form romantic and platonic relationships. While being overqualified has its own problems. 

Think about it. 

When you’re constantly told you’re meant for great things, it puts a lot of stress on that individual to meet those high expectations placed on them. 

If they don’t, people will be disappointed or feel as though they’re failing somehow. 

That’s why…

3) They rarely volunteer for leadership roles

Have you ever heard of the “Termites”?

And no, I don’t mean the wood-munching insect. 

I’m talking about a group of high-IQ individuals who were studied to test out the “early ripe early rot myth.”

Let me explain.

Initially conducted by Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman, the “Termites” consisted of 1500 gifted children with an IQ of 140 and above (80 of whom had IQs above 170). 

35 years later, participants of the Terman Study of the Gifted were contacted to find out their professions and measure their success. 

They are still being studied today with around 200 of his “kids” still alive. 

Sure, there were some exceptional standouts, but to everyone’s surprise, not everyone met Terman’s expectations. 

Instead, these “profoundly gifted” individuals chose more “humble” professions. 

For example, police officers, seafarers, and typists.

With Terman later concluding “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”

This was likely due to stress. In fact, the sad truth is, that many of these “Termites” were subject to the same rates of divorce, suicide, and alcoholism as the national average – if not more

While studies reveal that high IQ individuals are more prone to anxiety and worry

What’s more, they reported feeling less fulfilled. 

In response, they may avoid leadership positions or responsibilities that showcase their intellectual prowess, opting for roles that downplay their capabilities.

4) They are super agreeable (even when they’re right)

Have you ever watched Better Call Saul (the Breaking Bad spinoff)? 

A very specific reference, I know. But bear with me. There’s one character in there that sums this point up perfectly…

And that’s Kim Wexler

Now (for those of you who didn’t watch the show) Kim didn’t start out as overly agreeable. She was a fast-thinking and highly intelligent up-and-coming lawyer. 

But, without getting into spoilers, events in her life lead to a drastic change. 

The next time we see her, she’s meek, compliant, and indecisive. She can’t even decide which type of cake to get her work colleague (vanilla or strawberry, in case you were wondering). 

Not only is her attempt at normalcy a sign that she’s burnt out. 

But she’s worried about rocking the boat by expressing her true thoughts and ideas. 

In short, it’s a coping mechanism to control a stressful situation.

Of course, she’s a fictional character. But for many intelligent people, this is a real concern. And that’s because they get stuck in their own head. 

Simply put, they overthink EVERYTHING. 

They can’t help it. 

And while intelligent people are typically disagreeable, they may try to overcompensate (by downplaying their intelligence) to avoid conflict, judgment, and responsibility. 

Another reason might be, that they’re withholding information out of resentment – fed up with always being the problem-solver or the expectation to know everything. 

For example, pretending not to know the answer to something when they clearly do to force others to step up to the plate. 

Basically, shifting responsibility onto someone else, which brings us to the final point.

5) They feign “ignorance” way too often 

Like the boy who cried wolf, this person has cited “ignorance” way too often to be believed. 

It’s plain for you (and everyone else) to see, that they’re way too intelligent to deny knowing the answer to a conundrum, so simple, that even a fifth-grader would know the answer. 

They must be downplaying their intelligence (and silently passing the buck), right…

Or are they?

People often (wrongly) assume intelligence equals wisdom. 

But that’s not always the case. 

It’s called “myside bias.” We assume just because we know something, others must too. 

The truth is, there are multiple types of intelligence. And not all of them have to do with IQ. 

In fact, psychologists have found that having a high IQ doesn’t mean you possess rational thinking or decision-making skills

What’s more, a high IQ doesn’t mean you’re smart

So whether you believe someone is downplaying their intelligence to make more friends or avoid responsibility, stress, and worry. Consider this, they may just not know the answer. 




Picture of Leila El-Dean

Leila El-Dean

Leila is a passionate writer with a background in photography and art. She has over ten years of experience in branding, marketing, and building websites. She loves travelling and has lived in several countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Spain, and Malta. When she’s not writing (or ogling cats), Leila loves trying new food and drinking copious amounts of Earl Grey tea.

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