Emblazoned mediocrity and incompetence

by Captain Walker

Categories: Humanities, Psychology & Philosophy

Over many years, I’ve been noticing that it is acceptable for many people to declare themselves as  ‘lazy’, ‘dumb’, ‘stupid’, ‘luddite’, or ‘thick’. By stark contrast people who dare to assert that they are smart, or of above average intelligence are not accommodated very well. Instead they are given a rough time with derogatory responses, such as “That’s a bit pompous – isn’t it?” or “How arrogant?” The phenomenon is seen across many social media platforms and in real life conversations. It has been bothering me for some time. So, I decided to research it.

Emergent mechanisms

Declarations of incompetence, lack of knowledge or lack of intelligence are treated with support whilst assertions of competence, knowledge, or better intelligence are treated with either contempt or extreme suspicion.

The following mechanisms emerged:

  1. Social norms and humility: In many cultures, humility is a highly valued trait and boasting is frowned upon. Self-deprecating humour or downplaying one’s abilities can be seen as a sign of modesty. On the contrary, asserting one’s intelligence can be perceived as boastful or arrogant, which is generally frowned upon.
  2. Impression management: People may downplay their intelligence to avoid creating high expectations and to prevent potential failure or criticism. On the other hand, those who assert their intelligence may face backlash if they fail to meet the high standards they’ve set for themselves.
  3. Fear of failure and criticism: People who declare their competence set high expectations for themselves. If they fail to meet these expectations, they may face criticism or ridicule. On the other hand, declaring incompetence sets lower expectations, reducing the fear of failure and criticism.
  4. Self-handicapping: This is a cognitive strategy where people create obstacles and excuses for themselves to avoid self-blame when they do not perform well. Declaring incompetence can be a form of self-handicapping.
  5. Protection of self-esteem: By declaring incompetence, individuals can protect their self-esteem. If they perform poorly, they can attribute it to their declared incompetence. If they perform well, they can attribute it to their effort. Asserting high intelligence can be perceived as a threat by others, especially if they are insecure about their own intelligence. This can lead to defensive reactions, including derogatory responses.
  6. Social bonding: Declaring incompetence can create a sense of camaraderie among individuals who share similar struggles or difficulties. It can serve as a bonding tool, fostering empathy and understanding among group members

Stupid: Yes – I’ve noticed that you are one of those people who think they’re better than everybody else.

CW: Thanks for joining to assist me. And you represent exactly the type who feels it is fine to confess your stupidity and dumbness, and expect to be given much sympathy or empathy.

Stupid: How insulting!?

CW: There you go – I have only reported that which is based on hard evidence of all your break-out interactions on this site. Facts may hurt, but it doesn’t mean I am insulting you.

Stupid: Don’t try to be clever.

CW: I’m not trying to be clever. I am clever.

Stupid: Arrogant as usual.

CW: Well my claim is based on facts.

Stupid: What facts?

CW: Don’t pretend that you don’t know. I have stated many times on this blog the evidence that puts me in an IQ range well above population averages.

Stupid: Boasting now. You’re full of yourself – aren’t you.

CW: Nonsense. I am speaking the truth based on hard evidence. I have no specific or special need to big up myself. Hardly anybody visits this site anyway (by design).

Stupid: Well you would say so.

CW: Yes I would. Now back in the cage. Thanks for your help.


The intrusion above was well timed.

Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a social phenomenon where individuals who are identified as superior in terms of ability or achievements (the “tall poppies”) are resented, attacked, or criticized because their talents or accomplishments distinguish them from their peers. The term is particularly prevalent in Australia and New Zealand, where it is used to describe the criticism or downplaying of those who have achieved notable success.

The syndrome is not limited to these regions, however, and can be observed in various cultures worldwide. It is a reflection of a societal attitude where people are resented, excluded, or criticized for their success and merit. This can occur in various domains, including the workplace, academia, sports, and more.

A study led by Dr Rumeet Billan, titled “The Tallest Poppy“, reveals the consequences of this silent systemic syndrome and the impact it has on women in the workplace worldwide. The study suggests that TPS can lead to a devaluation of individuals based on their achievements and success, which can have significant psychological and social impacts.

The syndrome can be seen as a mechanism to enforce social conformity and discourage individual distinction. It is often driven by envy, resentment, or the desire to “level the playing field”. This can result in a culture that discourages high achievers and stifles innovation and progress.

For more detailed information, you may want to explore the following resources:

  1. Tall poppy syndrome – Wikipedia
  2. Tall Poppy Syndrome: When You Get Cut Down for Standing Out
  3. What is tall poppy syndrome? Breaking down the common experience – RUSSH
  4. The Tallest Poppy – Women of Influence


Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) is a complex phenomenon that goes beyond simple feelings of jealousy or an inferiority complex. While these emotions can certainly play a role, TPS is also deeply intertwined with broader psychosocial issues and cultural norms. Here are some of the key factors:

  1. Egalitarianism: In societies that highly value egalitarianism, TPS can emerge as a mechanism to maintain social equality. In these contexts, individuals who distinguish themselves through high achievement may be perceived as disrupting the social order, leading to backlash.
  2. Fear of isolation: Humans are inherently social creatures, and there can be a fear that standing out from the group will lead to social isolation. This can drive both the individuals who cut down the “tall poppies” (to maintain group cohesion) and the high achievers who downplay their accomplishments (to avoid standing out).
  3. Power dynamics: TPS can also be a reflection of power dynamics within a group or society. Those in positions of power may feel threatened by high achievers who could potentially challenge their status, leading to efforts to cut these individuals down.
  4. Social comparison: Social comparison theory suggests that individuals determine their own social and personal worth based on how they stack up against others. When someone else’s achievements highlight our own shortcomings, it can lead to negative emotions and behaviours, such as those seen in TPS.
  5. Cultural norms and values: Cultural norms and values play a significant role in TPS. In cultures that value modesty and humility, overt displays of success or superiority can be frowned upon. Conversely, in cultures that celebrate individual achievement and competition, TPS may be less prevalent.
  6. In-group and out-group bias: This refers to the tendency to view members of our own group more favourably than those of other groups. High achievers can be seen as members of an out-group, leading to negative attitudes and behaviours towards them.

These factors interact in complex ways to drive the behaviours associated with TPS. It’s important to note that while TPS can have negative effects, such as discouraging high achievers and stifling innovation, it is also a reflection of deep-seated human social behaviours and cultural values.

Women only?

Tall Poppy Syndrome (TPS) does not exclusively affect women; it can impact anyone who stands out due to their achievements or success, regardless of their gender. However, research and anecdotal evidence suggest that women may be particularly susceptible to TPS for several reasons:

  1. Gender stereotypes: Traditional gender roles and stereotypes can contribute to TPS. Women who achieve high levels of success may be perceived as violating expected norms, leading to backlash.
  2. Double bind: Women in positions of power often face a “double bind” where they are criticized either for being too soft or too tough. If they assert their intelligence or success, they may be seen as too aggressive or ambitious, traits that are often negatively associated with women.
  3. Imposter syndrome: Women are more likely to experience imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern where individuals doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a “fraud”. This can make them more susceptible to the effects of TPS.
  4. Workplace discrimination: Women often face more scrutiny and criticism in the workplace than their male counterparts, which can exacerbate the effects of TPS.

While women may be particularly affected, it is important to note that TPS can impact anyone who stands out due to their achievements or success. This includes individuals of any gender, as well as those from diverse backgrounds or who represent minority groups. The impact of TPS can also vary significantly based on cultural context and individual personality traits.

Dealing with it

Addressing these issues requires a multifaceted approach that includes personal strategies, organisational interventions, and societal changes. Here are some strategies that can be employed:

  1. Self-awareness: Recognise the signs of TPS and understand that the criticism or backlash you’re facing is likely not a reflection of your worth or abilities. This can help to mitigate the impact on your self-esteem and motivation.
  2. Resilience: Develop resilience to criticism and setbacks. This can involve strategies such as cognitive reframing (changing the way you interpret negative events), seeking social support, and practicing self-care.
  3. Assertive communication: Learn to communicate your achievements in a way that is assertive but not likely to be perceived as boastful. This can involve focusing on the team or collective effort, expressing gratitude for opportunities, and acknowledging the role of luck or timing.
  4. Mentorship and support networks: Seek out mentors who can provide advice and support, and build a network of peers who understand and share your experiences. This can provide a buffer against the negative effects of TPS.
  5. Promote a positive organisational culture: If you’re in a leadership position, work to create a culture that celebrates success and discourages TPS behaviours. This can involve promoting diversity and inclusion, recognising and rewarding achievements, and providing constructive feedback.
  6. Advocate for change: On a societal level, raising awareness of TPS and advocating for cultural change can help to shift attitudes and norms. This can involve speaking out about your experiences, supporting others who are facing TPS, and promoting a more balanced view of success and achievement.
  7. Professional help: If TPS is causing significant distress, it may be helpful to seek professional help, such as counselling or therapy.

The reading of posts on this blog is subject to the Terms & Conditions. Unpalatable truths and personal experiences may be told. Nothing posted on this blog is directed at any identified person. On occasions individuals are quoted anonymously. That does not mean that they have been identified to the world. Should any person or organisation reading this blog find something that makes them feel or know that they  are being referred to - any such perceived identification does not mean 'identified to the world'. ‘Stupid' is an impish figment of my imagination who occasionally is allowed to pop up – and does not represent any known individual or individuals. ‘Stupid'  carries the characteristics groups of people with 'social media mindsets'. The treatment of  'Stupid' is not representative of the way people are treated in real life. Adverse inferences made are dismissed in advance. 

While the publisher and author have used their best efforts in preparing posts on this blog, they make no representation or warranties with respect to the accuracy or completeness of the contents  and specifically disclaim any implied warranties or fitness for a particular purpose. Posts on this blog do not contain all information available on various topics. Posts contain opinion based on facts, experience and other concepts. Opinions expressed are not advice nor intent on persuading any individual or other legal entity to adopt the opinions.  Posts are not created to be specific to any individual’s or organisation’s situation or needs. All persons are instructed to obey relevant policies and procedures that may apply to them. Departure from such, is at readers' own risk. You should consult with a professional with fiduciary duty to you, when making decisions. The author and publisher shall have no liability or responsibility to any person or entity regarding any loss or damage incurred, or alleged to have been incurred, directly or indirectly, by the information contained on this blog or hyperlinked from this blog. 

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