5 Subtle Signs Someone Is Faking Their Intelligence

It may not appear obvious at first, but people who fake their intelligence have ulterior motives.

Last updated on Jun 22, 2024

intelligent woman with hand on face Roman Samborskyi / Shutterstock

Society is filled with fake smart people. And it's obvious why.

People want to feel smart. They want the respect, admiration, and attention that all come with being smart. But they don’t want to put in the work it takes to actually be smart. 

So what do they do? Consciously or subconsciously, they find ways to appear smart without actually being smart. And there are a few ways these people give themselves away.


Here are 5 subtle signs someone is faking their intelligence

1. They use big words and jargon

two women talking jargon Anna Shvets / Pexels

For writers, in particular, their goal isn't to sound smart; the real purpose is to get the message across, communicate wisdom, and raise human consciousness.

However, if a writer starts using big words, the readers have a hard time understanding. There's a big difference between saying, "Fabricating an attractive facade to a hollow intellect will return to masticate you in the gluteals" and "Being fake smart will return to bite you in the bippy"? What gets the message across better?

Fake intelligent people don’t care about that. They care about themselves and about sounding smart. Big words and jargon are their weapons to fool you into believing they’re smart when they’re actually not.

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2. They ask questions with a motive

woman asking another woman questions Antoni Shkraba / Pexels

A classic "fake smart" person will intentionally ask questions intended to stump others.

For example, let's say there's a professor who does this. When the students say they don’t know the answer, the professor grins and reveals the answer. This makes the student think the professor is smart.

But at the same time, that professor fails to clear the doubts of their peers. Perhaps they rarely answer the questions their senior students ask, making others realize that the professor doesn’t know all that much after all.

Of course, because they are a professor, they know a little, at least. But they purposefully ask difficult questions from the little knowledge they have so they can use that as a fake proxy to pretend they know a lot.


3. They're pretentious

pretentious man on the phone Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

Everyone knows that person of whom others speak highly. They may say about this person, "He might be a jerk, but he sure is a treasure chest of medical wisdom." But that roughly translates into, "He’s not only a jerk. He’s also pretentious."

Maybe he broadcasts whatever knowledge he has, almost for the sole purpose of advertising his smartness that probably doesn’t exist. However, on his academic tests, the results aren’t nearly as well as they should be for someone who’s created an image of a person with such a high degree of knowledge.

The delta between the degree of knowledge he claims to have and the results of the tests are too high to be ignored. And it’s not like his results have tanked in just a single test; it's on multiple tests, so that can't be just bad luck.

So, if someone appears smart on the surface, but repeatedly fails to get the results that must accompany that smartness, that asynchrony is a sure sign that they’re fake smart.

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4. They can't speak to the tiny details of any problem

annoyed man being questioned Timur Weber / Pexels

Any field is made up of wisdom of all sizes and apparentness. Some wisdom is obvious, easily shared, and easier to memorize. On the other hand, some wisdom is really hard to define and explain. This kind of wisdom comes only from long-term experience.

For instance, to make it as a writer, you must have "obvious wisdom" and "less obvious subtlety of the same wisdom."

Obvious wisdom is something like, "Write consistently." This advice is potent for sure, but it’s very easy to understand and share. Any fake can tell you this as well.

But the less obvious subtlety of the same wisdom can present as, "When an article does not do well, remind yourself to still be consistent. You don’t have to pay much attention to the stats of that article, because the success of one of your articles will more than compensate for the failures of your other articles — but only if you’re consistent." This is a subtle perspective of the same dose of wisdom, but this won’t be so easily shared by a fake.

People who are faking their intelligence share potent, yet very obvious wisdom. Yet when it comes to the tiny details of that wisdom, they just aren’t able to do it.

This is why Elon Musk often asks his interviewees to tell him the most difficult problems they’ve worked on and how they solved them. Musk says that people who really solved the problem know exactly how they solved it. They know the little details. And the people who just pretended to solve the problem can maybe talk a bit, but then they get stuck.

5. They're threatened by other intelligent people

woman feeling insecure next to other person fauxels / Pexels

Smart people love other smart people. For them, it’s an opportunity to exchange ideas and grow together. That’s why they often try to join a smarter room and meet smarter people.

On the other hand, fake intelligent people feel threatened by actual smart people for two reasons: they feel like their spotlight will be taken away, and they are subconsciously afraid of being exposed and labeled for the fake they are.

The world is filled with smart people. But you need to know the signs to recognize such people so they don’t dupe you.

RELATED: 7 Tiny Behaviors That Make People Instantly See You As Intelligent

Akshad Singi, M.D. is a writer whose work has been published in Better Humans, Mind Cafe, Medium, and more.