48 Laws of Power | Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker—Seem Dumber Than Your Mark

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Overview of Law #21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker

Play a sucker. Make your intended victims feel as though they’re smarter than you are, and they won’t suspect you of having ulterior motives. Seem dumber than your mark.

Principles of Law 21

Because nobody likes feeling stupid, be careful to avoid insulting another person’s intelligence inadvertently. Going a step further, you can exploit this human vanity to succeed in your schemes.

According to Law 21 of the 48 Laws of Power, if you make other people feel smarter than you, by making yourself out to be naive or slow-witted by comparison, they’ll let down their guard and fail to be suspicious of your motives. 

The Prussian minister Bismarck used this tactic to get Count Blome of Austria to sign a treaty beneficial to Prussia but against the interests of Austria. The night before the negotiations started, Bismarck challenged Blome to a round of his favorite card game, quinze. He played recklessly and made rash comments and blunders, which lulled Blome into thinking he didn’t need to worry about anything devious being in the treaty. He signed it the next day without reading the fine print, at which point Bismarck exulted that he’d never expected an Austrian to sign such a treaty. He followed Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker—and it worked.

Making others feel smarter than you by appearing to be naive and playing a sucker can also help you advance in the ranks, if you’re starting in a low position. You won’t seem threatening to anyone, and you’ll be promoted. At the least, you’ll be left alone to pursue your own interests unnoticed.

Besides downplaying your intelligence, you can do the same with other qualities to lull people into complacency. For instance, make people feel they are more sophisticated or have better taste. They’ll like having you around to make them feel better about themselves, and you’ll have the space to develop your schemes. This is one advantage of playing a sucker to catch a sucker.

Putting Law 21 to Work

Here’s an example of how to apply Law 21 of the 48 Laws of Power: In the late 1800s two San Francisco con artists swindled a group of wealthy New York businessmen and financiers into buying a fake diamond mine from them for a large amount of money. 

They seeded the mine with real diamonds and other jewels, and had inspectors evaluate and authenticate the supposed mine. But what tilted the scheme in their favor was the fact that they came off as bumbling, naive rubes who’d stumbled on a fortune and didn’t know where to turn. The businessmen felt superior, and never suspected them of having the intelligence and capability to pull off a sophisticated scam. Further, after several influential businessmen had signed off on the deal, no one in the financial world wanted to impugn their intelligence.

The con artists got away with the money, and the reputation of at least one of the businessmen was damaged beyond repair. These con artists knew to seem dumber than your mark.

Exceptions to Law 21

Are there any exceptions to Law 21 of the 48 Laws of Power? Should you ever not play a sucker and seem dumber than your mark? One circumstance in which you shouldn’t downplay your intelligence is the beginning of your career or climb to power. You’ll want to make it known to the higher-ups that you’re smarter than any competitors. However, be careful not to overdo it, or you’ll become a threat.

You can also cover up a deception by emphasizing your intelligence and authority. For instance, the art dealer Joseph Duveen distracted a potential buyer from the fact that a painting might be fraudulent by intimidating the target with his expertise.

But, in general, follow Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker—Seem Dumber Than Your Mark.

48 Laws of Power | Law 21: Play a Sucker to Catch a Sucker—Seem Dumber Than Your Mark

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  • Why you should never outshine your boss
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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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