Is Joey Essex fooling us all? The psychology behind ‘acting dumb’ and how to deal with it at home or in the office

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Joey Essex has faced years of speculation about whether he is really as clueless as he appears or he’s just ‘playing dumb’ to endear himself to the public. Either way his character is well loved by the British public in the Love Island Villa and he immediately became a bookies favourite to win.

As a young writer interviewing Joey Essex back in 2016, I can confirm that he is just as charming and loveable in real life as he appears on screen. But as a psychologist, watching him on this series of Love Island, one concept immediately came to mind: weaponised incompetence.

Weaponised incompetence refers to a person deliberately performs tasks poorly or pretends to be incapable. It’s used to avoid responsibility and the usual outcome is that someone else will sweep in and help them.

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In Joey Essex’s appearance on I’m a Celebrity in 2013, we learnt that he didn’t know how to tell the time. Luckily for him, Miss Universe Great Britain was there to swoop in and teach Joey the basics of how a clock works. Other memorable moments - such as suggesting Russia borders Wales, Australia is in the UK and that a square has six sides - have always gained Joey a warm round of laughs from his audience.

I can’t help but notice the similarity between these situations and weaponised incompetence. By appearing less knowledgeable or capable he garners sympathy, amusement and affection from those around him – conveniently for him, it usually involves attractive looking women.

In fact, research shows that women are more likely to be targets of this tactic. In the workplace it can result in women taking on more work than necessary and can even have a negative impact on stress, wellbeing and long-term career trajectory.

On one of the first episodes of Love Island, in a surprising moment of eloquence, Joey correctly uses the word ‘gravitate’ in a sentence, with perfect pronunciation. Appearing to almost catch himself, he quickly backtracked, saying “I can’t believe I’m using that word so much recently, I don’t even know what it means’’.

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He then seems to forget the word all together, mispronouncing it and having to ask Liverpool’s Samantha Kenny to remind him what the word was. Thankfully, she was there to teach him how to say the word, he’d only moments before, used perfectly. Whether his incompetence is genuine or not, it has undoubtedly contributed to his popularity and continued success in the world of reality television.

Have you had similar experiences? Maybe your partner has a habit of saying you ‘just clean better’ than they do or your colleague conveniently ‘forgets’ to do that unappealing task.

Here are my top three ways to avoid falling for this tactic:

Discuss expectations

Having a conversation around expectations is a great way to set clear boundaries from the get go. Openly discuss individual responsibilities and agree standards which must be met. This could be as simple as a short conversation with your partner about who does what and when or detailing work tasks in a shared spreadsheet with your team.

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Direct them to resources

If you end up in a situation where someone is telling you they can’t do something it can be challenging to identify whether they genuinely don’t know how or really can’t be bothered trying. Instead of offering to take over or do it for them, offer to teach them or point them towards some resources which might be helpful. This will not only invalidate their excuse but also empower them to make more effective contributions. If they continue to resist then it’s more likely to be avoidance rather than a lack of knowledge.

Hold them accountable

If you find yourself with more than your fair share when it comes to workload, don’t be afraid of raising the conversation. This doesn’t have to be confrontational but share any concerns you may have about the impact this behaviour has on you and your household or wider team.

Whether you’re at home, in the office or the Love Island villa, weaponised incompetence is a cunning tactic that leaves others to pick up the slack. Hopefully now you’ll be better prepared the next time you see someone struggling with a task they ‘just can’t get right’. As for Joey Essex, the questions still stands: is his incompetence is genuine or just a strategic choice? Hopefully he remains in the villa long enough for us to figure it out.

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