The idea of impressing other people by looking as smart as possible may seem like a basic interpersonal strategy. Wouldn’t you like other people to admire you for your intelligence, wit, skills, and general insight into life? Think of all the times you want to engage in this form of impression management. It could be competing with your social media followers in an online game, coming up with little factoids during conversations, or just trying to get a boss or relative to think better of you.
Given this general bias toward showing off your intelligence, you might wonder why on earth anyone would want to convey the opposite impression of “playing dumb.” Indeed, isn’t this a relic of some earlier period in gender relations when women, the “dumb blondes,” sought to benefit themselves by disguising their abilities?
As it turns out, the behavior of hiding your “light in a barrel” is surprisingly common, particularly in workplace settings. Laura Venz, of Leuphana University, and Hadar Neshan Shoshan, of the University of Mannheim, note that, despite its risks, “employees do hide their knowledge in their everyday work” (p. 2). Knowledge hiding is one of many potential counterproductive work behaviors (CWBs), such as sneaking a box of paper clips into your backpack before leaving the office because you’re annoyed at the company’s policy on office supplies. These CWBs, the German authors propose, are most likely to occur when an employee has an ax to grind.
Stress and the Tendency to Play Dumb
The idea that people act out by playing dumb fits in with this approach to CWBs as a response to stress. When you hide knowledge, you do so at a possible cost of serving to annoy the people who think you should have the answers, but could it also make you feel better? You could, in the transactional stress model adopted by the German authors, decide that the cost of retaliation by withholding key information is worth it by allowing you to feel more in control of what you perceive as a stressful situation.
Think back on a time when you deliberately withheld the answer to a question you knew perfectly well. Perhaps you were feeling resentful toward your partner for constantly needing to be reminded of upcoming appointments. Why can’t they just keep track of their own schedule? You’ve got enough on your mind. The next time your partner asks when their next dentist’s appointment is, you lie and say you don’t know. It’s not particularly nice of you to do this, but you still feel a sense of control. Technically, you didn’t have to fill in your partner’s missing knowledge, so you didn’t.
In the model proposed by Venz and Shohan, this counterproductive relationship behavior can be similar to the way an employee would cover up knowledge in order to retain a sense of control in a situation in which they feel stressed. The idea of a transactional approach to stress is based on the premise that there’s nothing inherently stressful about a situation. It’s all in your perception of that situation, along with your perception of your ability to manage it. Knowledge hiding is a strategy known as “emotion-focused coping, thus potentially being instrumental to oppose short-term psychological strain responses” (p. 4).
Testing the Playing Dumb–Stress Hypothesis
Knowledge hiding actually incorporates several related behaviors. In “rationalized hiding,” you offer a justification for not providing an answer. You could refuse, for example, to answer a question on the grounds that the information is confidential. Furthermore, in “evasive hiding,” you provide incorrect or incomplete information. You could also promise to provide information and then never do so, the infamous “I’ll get back to you.” When you simply play dumb, you just deny having the knowledge at all.
These may seem like very slight nuances to you, but it might strike you that all involve some type of deception. However, rationalized hiding could be completely valid, leading Venz and Shoshan to separate it conceptually from the other two forms of information hiding. Their research, therefore, focused on the other two forms of hiding that have no legitimate basis.
Turning now to the study’s hypotheses, the authors proposed that perceived feelings of stress would predict the use of knowledge hiding as an emotional coping method that, in turn, would predict lowered levels of exhaustion and strain. The 101 employees in the study (65 percent female; average age 39 years) completed two surveys at the beginning and end of each workday for a total of 10 workdays. Each morning, they rated their levels of negative affect, and at the end of the day, they rated their workload, feelings of relationship strain with fellow employees, the extent to which they used knowledge hiding, feelings of exhaustion, and negative affect.
Using feelings of morning negative affect and workload as control factors, the authors used the daily survey data to track the connections among strain, knowledge hiding, and feelings of stress relief. The findings revealed that, as predicted, higher feelings of relationship strain were related to knowledge hiding. Playing dumb, specifically, additionally predicted lower feelings of both exhaustion and negative affect. In other words, people feeling strained at work were more likely to engage in this CWB, but only playing dumb was related to a greater sense of relief.
In the words of the authors, “playing dumb is a rather quick, complete and utter way to hide knowledge that instantly unfolds its coping function, thus relating to immediate low psychological strain” (pp. 16-17). Indeed, it takes more effort to hide what you know by distorting it in some way than just to pretend you didn’t know it in the first place. Thinking back to that example of the dentist appointment, all you have to do is hold back on the information you could have given to your partner; you don’t have to make up some other date or decide to give the date but not the time.
An important proviso in the study was that people who were generally strained didn’t just generally play dumb and then just generally feel better. Instead, it was that day-to-day variation in the strain-playing dumb–relief relationship that provided the best fit to the data. There may be days when you’re no more likely to play dumb than anyone else; much would depend on how stressed you’re feeling at that given time.
Should You Play Dumb?
If the German findings suggest to you that it’s better to respond to stress by covering up your knowledge, you might want to take heed of some of the warnings. Indeed, in interpreting their results, the authors make it clear that this is a strategy that can help you feel better momentarily, but it won’t work over the long haul. They suggest it is preferable to examine what about a relationship makes you feel strained and then address that problem. If your partner’s inability to remember their own appointments really bothers you, then continuing to pretend you can’t be of help will only create further rifts in the future.
You can also use the findings to identify when momentary feelings of stress lead you to behave in a counterproductive way in situations that could end up backfiring to affect your ability to succeed in your important life goals. Eventually, the employee who continues to play dumb is likely to be out of a job or at least moved progressively down the organizational totem pole.
To sum up, rather than cover up your strengths as a way of feeling in control when someone is pressuring you, use the opportunity to take that light out of the barrel and let it shine.