Acting Innocent and “Playing Dumb” as Manipulation Tactics

Feigning ignorance is an effective tactic that manipulates the person confronting the behavior into having doubts about the legitimacy of the issue they’re trying to bring to the other person’s attention.

This article is the seventh in a series of posts on habitual behaviors common to individuals of disturbed character. These behaviors interfere with the internalization of pro-social values and standards of conduct as well as serving as effective tactics of manipulation, control, and impression management. Some of the behaviors we’ve explored thus far include Shaming and Guilt-Tripping, Minimization, and Evasion and Diversion:

When disordered characters are confronted about problematic behaviors, they are apt to employ a select group of tactics to avoid responsibility and manipulate others. Two of the most common of such tactics are feigning ignorance (i.e. “playing dumb”) and/or feigning innocence.

Many times, when your gut is telling you that you’re being taken advantage of, played for a fool, or simply being mistreated, and you confront a disordered character about it, they’ll act like they have no idea what you’re talking about. They’ll pretend to be totally unaware and in the dark. Sometimes, when you have received information from a reliable source about something you suspect they’ve been doing, they’ll pretend they have no earthly idea where anyone could have come up with such an idea about them. Feigning ignorance is an effective tactic that manipulates the person confronting the behavior into having doubts about the legitimacy of the issue they’re trying to bring to the other person’s attention. It invites them to see themselves as a false accuser and victimizer, instead of being the victim of the disordered character’s malicious behavior.

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The technique of feigning ignorance often goes hand in hand with the tactic of feigning innocence. When disordered characters use this technique they will either simply act like (or loudly protest) that they have done nothing wrong and have nothing to feel guilty about or ashamed of. If there’s no way they can deny doing something you can prove they did, then they might claim that they had no malicious intent and that any harm that came of what they did was unintended. This tactic serves the purpose of obscuring the true character of their actions.

Feigning ignorance and innocence are effective ways to deny malevolent intention. They’re effective tactics, especially when used on neurotic individuals, for several reasons. First, when the victimizer denies malevolent intention, and appears innocent, the person confronting the problem behavior begins to feel uncomfortable in the role of unfair accuser and begins to misperceive who occupies the victimizer and victim positions. If the disturbed character can make you feel bad for indicting him, he’s half way home to successfully conning and manipulating you. Second, neurotics are prone to judging intentions as opposed to actions. They want to think of most people as good and kind and hate to think that people really harbor malevolent intentions. What’s more, they hate to think of themselves as ever acting unfairly or in a manner that brings harm to others. So, when the disordered character has them thinking that they’re the bad guy, they readily back down. That’s why, in my book In Sheep’s Clothing, I advise neurotics who want to empower themselves in their potential dealings with disturbed characters to “judge actions, not intentions.”

In an earlier post, I talked about never accepting “I don’t know” for an answer when confronting disordered characters. (See “Neurosis vs. Character Disorder: Levels of Awareness”.) That’s because they’re not only keenly aware of the things they do that other people have a problem with, but they also know full well what their motivation was for doing those things. They also know that neurotics are very hesitant to believe this. That’s not only because neurotics find it uncomfortable to accept the notion that not everyone is of benign character but also because traditional psychological schools of thought have never adequately identified and correctly defined character disturbance and the kinds of behaviors typically associated with it. So I advise people who might be in relationships with disturbed characters to be aware of the tactics they frequently use to evade responsibility and manipulate others. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned well over the years, it’s that whenever you confront a disturbed character on their inappropriate behavior, you need to stay focused on those problem behaviors no matter how clueless or innocent they might act.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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