A illustrated image of men’s faces in striped shirts and hats. All of the men except one, who is orange, are yellow. Image via pixabay, Pixabay License.

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.

Impression Management

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.

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.