For many, the start of the school year brings a mixed bag of emotions, from budding anticipation to feelings of unease and anxiety about self-worth and competence, otherwise known as imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome exists well beyond academia, disproportionately affecting minorities and women, groups underrepresented in fields like business and medicine. What does social science research tell us about what imposter syndrome is, how it works, and how it can be addressed?
What it Is
Imposter syndrome, first described as the “impostor phenomenon,” refers to individuals’ perceived fraudulence and unworthiness within high-pressure environments and workplaces–the feeling that they don’t fit or aren’t really supposed to be there. It appears to be most prevalent among systematically marginalized groups like women, first-generation students, and BIPOC and queer people. Imposter syndrome flourishes in spite of, or perhaps even because of, increased diversity and representation. Individuals with imposter syndrome doubt the validity of their achievements and fear being exposed as frauds. These feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness are often compounded by social anxiety and depression, which can lead to self-sabotage. Imposter syndrome may partially explain higher drop-out rates among undergraduate groups in fields historically dominated by white men like medicine, mathematics, and science.
- Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. 1978. ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice 15(3):241–247.
- Michael Gottlieb, Arlene Chung, Nicole Battaglioli, Stefanie S. Sebok-Syer, and Annahieta Kalantari. 2019. “‘Imposter syndrome among physicians and physicians in training”. Medical Education 54:116-124
- John Kooligan Jr. and Robert J. Sternberg. 2010. ’Perceived Fraudulence in Young Adults: Is there an Imposter Syndrome?’. Journal of Personality Assessment 56(2):308-326.
- Kori A. LaDonna, Shiphra Ginsburg, and Christopher Watling. 2018. “Rising to the Level of Your Incompetence”: What Physicians’ Self-Assessment of Their Performance Reveals About the Imposter Syndrome in Medicine”. Academic Medicine 93(5):763-768.
To manage feelings of inadequacy, individuals rely on what Erving Goffman called impression management. Impression management is the practice of keeping up appearances and matching one’s identity and behavior with societal expectations for social roles, positions, and identities. Imposter syndrome can emerge in settings with conflicting roles or expectations or when someone’s background, identity, and interaction style does not fit well with what is expected. This can lead people to using perfectionism and workaholism to exhibit competence. For instance, research on female facilities managers shows that performing competence often leads to higher performance outcomes despite persistent feelings of inadequacy. Displaying competency despite feelings of inadequacy can exacerbate the role conflict individuals experience or the tension between self-doubt and high achievement.
- Erving Goffman. 1959. The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books.
- Florence Y. Y. Ling, Zhe Zhang, and Stephanie Y. L. Tay 2020. “Imposter Syndrome and Gender Stereotypes: Female Facility Managers’ Work Outcomes and Job Situations”. Journal of Management in Engineering 36(5).
The Challenges of Diversifying
Efforts to “diversify” high-status fields like academia, law, and medicine sometimes fail to address the subtle cultural factors that can marginalize and exclude underrepresented groups. Lack of familiarity with field-specific concepts like peer review and tenure track or norms like networking or mentoring can leave individuals feeling alienated. This unfamiliarity is often at the root of the unease associated with imposter syndrome. To address imposter syndrome schools and workplaces have proposed a range of solutions including targeted mentorship programs and additional support for nontraditional students and employees. Scholars emphasize that addressing imposter syndrome should involve solutions that emphasize flourishing and well-being over identity-based inclusion efforts.
- George Chrousos and Alexio-Fotios Mentis. 2020. “Imposter Syndrome Threatens Diversity”. Science 367(6479):749-750.
- Joel Bothello and Thomas Roulet. 2019. “The Imposter Syndrome, or the Misrepresentation of the Self in Academic Life”. Journal of Management Studies 56(4):854-861.
- Rachel Gable. 2021. The Hidden Curriculum : First Generation Students at Legacy Universities. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Samyukta Mullangi and Reshma Jagsi. 2019. “Imposter Syndrome: Treat the Cause, Not the Symptom”. Journal of the American Medical Association 332(5): 403-404.