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Law 21: Play a Sucker To Catch a Sucker—Seem Dumber Than Your Mark (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 21: Play a Sucker To Catch a Sucker—Seem Dumber Than Your Mark

You should always appear dumber than you are. Make others feel smarter than you, and they will never suspect that you have hidden motives.

We find the idea that others are more intelligent than us intolerable. We justify it by either saying they are only book smart, while we have real knowledge. Or their parents paid for a good education and they’re privileged, or they may be great at their narrow field, but don’t know anything outside their domain of expertise.

Intelligence is critical to your sense of importance and vanity. Insulting the intelligence of others is a mistake. But if you allow your own intelligence to be insulted, you can gain significant leverage. If you convince others that they are smarter than you are, or that you are a bit of a moron, you can easily deceive them. The illusion of intellectual superiority will disarm them.

In 1865, Otto von Bismarck wanted Austria to sign a certain treaty that catered to Prussian interests, and disregarded Austrian interests. Bismarck’s task required some cunning.

Count Blome, the Austrian negotiator, was an avid card player. His game was quinze and he often said that he can read someone by the way they play the game. Bismarck knew this about Blome. The night before the negotiations, Bismarck played  the worst game of Quinz imaginable. He squandered his money and said ridiculous things, giving the appearance of a reckless fool.

Blome concluded that Bismarck was aggressive, a reputation that preceded the Prussian before the card game, but he also concluded that Bismarck was foolish and rash. When the time came to sign the treaty, Blome thought he had the advantage. He didn’t think a fool like Bismarck would be capable of cold-blooded calculation and deception, so he signed the treaty without paying attention to the fine print. As soon as the ink was dry, Bismarck looked at Blome and said, “Well, I could never have believed that I should find an Austrian diplomat willing to sign that document!”

The easier they think it is to prey on you, the more easily you can fool them. If you are ambitious but are low in the hierarchy, appearing less intelligent than you are is the perfect disguise. But it is not only intelligence that you can downplay, taste and sophistication come close to intelligence on the vanity scale. If people feel more sophisticated than you are, they will let their guard down.

Know how to make use of stupidity: The wisest man plays this card at times. There are occasions when the highest wisdom consists in appearing not to know—you must not be ignorant but capable of playing it. It is not much good being wise among fools and sane among lunatics. He who poses as a fool is not a fool. The best way to be well received by all is to clothe yourself in the skin of the dumbest of brutes.

Baltasar Gracián

It rarely pays to show others how smart you are. If people inadvertently find out that you are much smarter than you seem, they will admire your discretion. But you cannot play too stupid. Of course, it pays to let your boss know that you are more intelligent than your competition.

There are also moments where showing your intelligence can work in your favor. The art dealer Joseph Duveen once attended a soiree at a tycoon’s home in New York, whom he sold an expensive Durer painting. One of the guests was a French critic who seemed knowledgeable and confident. The tycoon’s daughter tried to impress him by showing him the Durer, but when he examined it, he concluded that it was a fake.

The critic followed the daughter to her father, when she told him the news. But when the tycoon turned to Duveen for reassurance, the art dealer wittily defused the situation. He laughed. “How very amusing,” he said. “Do you realize, young man, that at least twenty other art experts here and in Europe have been taken in too, and have said that painting isn’t genuine? And now you’ve made the same mistake.” His confidence and authority intimidated the French critic who apologized for his error.

Duveen knew the market was flooded with fakes, and while he did his best to tell real from fake, he made a much bigger effort in convincing his clients that their paintings were original. People trusted him because he seemed to be a man of superior knowledge and authority. Playing the professor can be a smart tactic, but this weapon should not be used for its own sake.

Read The 48 Laws of Power


Law 21: Play a Sucker To Catch a Sucker—Seem Dumber Than Your Mark (The 48 Laws of Power) 1

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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