We all want to be smart. Or at least, be seen as smart. Intelligence is social currency, after all. Being perceived as intelligent can open doors to opportunities and make people respect you.
That’s why many of us go to great pains to appear smarter than they are – which I totally understand, but also find really awkward.
You see, when someone fakes their intelligence, they’re not really fooling anyone. They might think they’re pulling it off, but they’re honestly not.
Here are some obvious signs that alert the rest of the world to the presence of a pseudo-intellectual:
1) Using big words incorrectly
I think there’s no dead giveaway more than throwing around big words without actually knowing what they mean.
“Utilitarianism.” “Existentialist.” “Ubiquitous.” And the ever reliable “peripatetic.”
Look, some folks do use these words so naturally (like writers, professors, and other scholarly types) that you won’t notice them. They know what those words mean so the usage is correct and absolutely appropriate.
But if someone uses big words yet can’t actually explain what they mean, you know what’s up.
My advice? Stick to words you know, no matter how simple they are. When it comes to communication, ultimately what matters is the clarity with which you convey an idea, not the grandiosity of the words you use.
2) Constant namedropping
Similarly, watch out for those who mention the big names in the intellectual world – Aristotle, Plato, Einstein, Karl Marx…
…but can’t really keep up if you decide to call their bluff and go into a deeper discussion about these high level thinkers.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with quoting Einstein or Plato when it’s relevant to the discussion. After all, as Plato said, “There’s no harm in repeating a good thing.” (See what I did there?)
The problem is when they name drop in almost every conversation, as if being familiar with big names qualifies them as intellectuals, too.
If you talk about absurd situations, they’ll go in with Kafka. Talk about relationships, and they’ll drop a strange bit from Neil de Grasse Tyson.
Truth is, it just smacks of inauthenticity. Especially if it’s a little off-tangent to the conversation at hand.
It’s a clear sign that the person is more interested in looking intelligent than in being real and making a meaningful connection. It also shows they have…
3) Overconfidence without substance
Challenge someone who drops profound quotes all the time like those above, and you’ll likely find they can’t go the distance.
And that applies to almost everything else. What’s more, when you call their bluff, they’ll dig in their heels or change the topic instead of admitting they’re wrong.
A genuinely intelligent person would never do that. You know why? Because the one thing a true intellectual understands best is that they don’t know everything.
That’s why they’re open to learning and are comfortable admitting when they don’t know something.
4) Always steering conversations to show off knowledge
I once had the (dis)pleasure of sitting next to a fake intelligent person at a dinner party. How did I know he was a pseudo-intellectual?
Because of conversations like this:
Me: “I can’t wait to go see the new Marvel movie this weekend. It’s been a long time coming! Are you going to watch it?”
Him: “Ah no, I’m not into superhero movies. They’re a little too mainstream for me. I’m more into classical music. Do you like Bach or Beethoven?
Me: “Right…I can’t say I do because I haven’t really listened much to classical music.”
Him: “Oh, you should! Baroque compositions are just exquisite!”
Believe me, it took all my willpower to keep myself from rolling my eyes. Instead of thinking how smart he was, I just found him pompous and fake.
That’s how fake intellectuals operate – they try to divert the conversation to topics they feel they’re experts in. Topics that would put them on safe and solid ground, where no one would notice that they aren’t exactly, uhm, smart.
5) Being condescending to others
If you’ll notice in that conversation above, you’ll also see another sign of fake intelligence – a condescending tone.
Essentially, “too mainstream for me” translates to “that’s too dumb”.
Being talked down to is no doubt annoying, but instead of taking it personally, consider this – condescension is often a protective mechanism for people who are insecure about their own intelligence.
They feel the need to put others down to elevate themselves.
It’s a stark contrast to the truly intelligent, who don’t feel the need to do such things to prove they’re high-level. They know they’re smart, and that’s that. No need to puff one’s feathers up.
6) Rejecting other opinions without reason
Another sign of true intelligence is the ability to consider different viewpoints. Intelligent people love the exchange of ideas; it’s a huge part of how they grow. They don’t act like they’ve got it all figured out.
That’s why, whenever I encounter someone who dismisses others’ opinions without giving any reason, my “fake intelligent person” radar goes pinging.
Sad to say, a fake intelligent person places more value on their ego than on seeking the truth. The truth doesn’t matter if it means they’re wrong.
In fact, the more you try to present other perspectives, the more they’ll dig in their heels. Because above all, they don’t want to be exposed and risk being seen as uninformed or unintelligent.
Which brings me to my next point…
7) Unwillingness to listen
It’s hard to get into a healthy debate with a fake intelligent person. Like I said, they refuse to consider other people’s perspectives.
They’d rather dominate conversations and show off just how much they know. The irony is, the more they do this, the less intelligent they appear.
Because if you’ve met truly intelligent people, you’ll notice how they’re so curious and open-minded. How well they listen. They want to absorb new information and learn something they don’t know yet.
8) Lack of curiosity
Speaking of curiosity, that’s another sign of a fake intelligent person. Or rather, the lack of curiosity.
Like I said, a genuinely intelligent person is intensely curious. They want to know how you think, they want to hear about your unique life experiences. So they’ll ask questions to know more.
The fake intelligent person is rarely interested, if at all. They’re more concerned with appearing intelligent and showing off their knowledge.
9) Inability to think critically
Any topic related to intelligence needs to cover critical thinking, because this is perhaps the best indicator that one is a true intellectual.
Take a look at the world’s most high-level thinkers – scientists, philosophers, and such – they don’t just rehash what’s out there.
A critical thinker is someone who can look at a situation, analyze every aspect of it, and come to their own conclusions.
A fake intelligent person? They usually resort to parroting other people’s opinions. (And maybe even namedrop while they’re at it to further bolster the validity of their opinion.)
They’ll latch onto popular opinions or buzzwords without understanding the reasoning and intricacies behind them.
Why do they do it? Well, for them, it’s easier to repeat what others say than to do the actual brain work and form their own informed thoughts.
10) Overcomplicating simple ideas
Finally, beware of people who make simple ideas sound unnecessarily complex. They’ll take a concept and shroud it in so much jargon and abstraction that you’re left with more question marks in your head than enlightenment.
I used to be a teacher, and one thought that truly guided me when I was starting out was this one from Einstein: “If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it.”
I tested myself on a lot of things using this as a basis. For example, I’d try describing the plot of a book in as few words as possible. Or I’d take a complex idea like existentialism and explain it in simple terms.
Some days I was successful, some days I failed miserably (notably quantum physics and macroeconomics).
Anyway, my point is, real intelligence aims to simplify. To clarify. Not to wow and impress.
If you’re talking to someone who claims to know all about artificial intelligence and its implications for the workforce, for example, but you end up feeling even more confused, chances are, you’re talking to a fake intelligent person.
Is intelligence something you can “fake it till you make it”? The short answer is no.
True intelligence involves real cognitive abilities like problem-solving, logical reasoning, and comprehension. These aren’t skills you can convincingly fake for a long time, especially when put to the test.
So, instead of focusing on how to appear intelligent, we should pour our effort into actually learning new things and being open to other perspectives.
As with anything else in life, authenticity matters most. People will appreciate realness, no matter what your IQ score says or how little you know about philosophy.