As a young scientist, not a day goes by when I don’t see the phrase “imposter syndrome” in at least a few tweets or Instagram posts written by colleagues. In recent years, imposter syndrome seems to have become commonplace in academia, particularly among students and early-career faculty. So, what exactly is imposter syndrome, and how does it arise? This post will discuss what scientists currently know about the psychological basis of imposter syndrome and provide tips for overcoming it.
The scientific literature defines imposter syndrome, also known as the imposter phenomenon, as “a psychological state in which people express self-doubt on their accomplishments and skills, despite factual evidence or other people indicating otherwise.” People who suffer from imposter syndrome often experience a fear of being exposed as a fraud, since they believe that they have fooled their peers and coworkers into thinking that they have higher skills, abilities, and professional competence than they do in reality. Consequently, so-called “syndromal imposters” feel more prone to failure and are often less productive, feel insecure about themselves, and procrastinate when completing work-related tasks. Interestingly, a recent study suggests that imposter syndrome is not a homogenous phenomenon and that those who suffer from imposter syndrome can be distinguished into two categories: true imposters, who have the negative self-views and the psychological traits that are traditionally associated with imposter syndrome; and strategic imposters, who deliberately present themselves as having imposter syndrome in order to appear more modest and to keep others’ expectations about their abilities as low as possible. Thus, imposter syndrome appears to be a complex and multifaceted psychological phenomenon.
Imposter syndrome was originally described in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who noted in their paper that imposter phenomenon appears to be “particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high-achieving women.” While imposter syndrome certainly affects more people than just “high-achieving women,” Clance and Imes’s observation had some merit. Studies have shown that the prevalence of imposter syndrome is higher among certain groups of people than others, including those with highly-demanding families or professional environments and those with certain psychological traits, such as perfectionism and insecurity. Imposter syndrome is also believed to affect up to two out of three people in certain settings. Still, studies suggest that the prevalence of imposter syndrome may be grossly underestimated in academia, particularly because mental health is considered a social stigma in higher education.
Imposter syndrome is perhaps most prevalent among women and underrepresented racial, ethnic, and religious minorities. In fact, these alarming rates of imposter syndrome among marginalized groups recently prompted two scientists to write a letter in Science, one of the world’s most highly esteemed scientific journals, about the potential implications of imposter syndrome on the success of women and minorities in academia. Specifically, the authors caution that individuals who experience imposter syndrome may be sabotaging their own careers by constantly downplaying their accomplishments. At a societal level, the high prevalence of imposter syndrome may also contribute to the high drop-out rates of these groups from STEM-related fields, which could be detrimental to the recent efforts of some universities to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.
So, what can someone do if they believe they are experiencing imposter syndrome?
While scientists have been exploring the psychology behind imposter syndrome for the past several decades, far less is known about the biological basis of this phenomenon. Thus, most treatments that are currently recommended by doctors are coping strategies. First, it is important to acknowledge that you are in control of your thoughts – imposter syndrome is a fantasy based on subjective opinions and assumptions that are not rooted in facts, and you have the power to change them. Second, you can reframe your thoughts – remember that the only difference between people with imposter syndrome and those without it is how they respond to challenges (not their intelligence nor competence, as you may think). Specifically, you can learn to accept constructive criticism from others and remember that the more you practice a skill or ability, the more you will improve, and the better you will become at it. Finally, you can share your feelings with friends or mentors – imposter syndrome is more common than you may think, and it is likely that many of your colleagues have experienced similar feelings of self-doubt. Sharing these feelings with trusted friends or mentors is an excellent way of reassuring yourself that what you’re feeling is normal and can make these feelings seem less intimidating.
For more information about the psychology behind imposter syndrome and potential coping strategies, check out the articles in the “References and Recommendations for Further Reading” section below!
References and Recommendations for Further Reading
- Abrams, A. (2018). “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real. Here’s How to Deal With It.” Time Magazine.
- Allen-Ramdial, S. A., & Campbell, A. G. (2014). Reimagining the pipeline: advancing STEM diversity, persistence, and success. BioScience, 64, 612-618.
- Bravata, D. M., Watts, S. A., Keefer, A. L., Madhusudhan, D. K., Taylor, K. T., Clark, D. M., Nelson, R. S., Cokley, K. O., & Hagg, H. K. (2020). Prevalence, predictors, and treatment of impostor syndrome: a systematic review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 35, 1252-1275.
- Chrousos, G. P., Mentis, A. A., & Dardiotis, E. (2020). Focusing on the neuro-psycho-biological and evolutionary underpinnings of the imposter syndrome. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1553.
- Chrousos, G. P., & Mentis, A. A. (2020). Imposter syndrome threatens diversity. Science, 367, 749-750.
- Dickerson, D. (2019). How I overcame impostor syndrome after leaving academia. Nature, 574, 588.
- Evans, T. M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J. B., Weiss, L. T., & Vanderford, N. L. (2018). Evidence for a mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36, 282-284.
- Leary, M. R., Patton, K. M., Orlando, A. E., & Funk, W. W. (2001). The impostor phenomenon: self‐perceptions, reflected appraisals, and interpersonal strategies. Journal of Personality, 68, 725-756.
- Levine, A. G. (2020). “How to Banish Imposter Syndrome.” Science Magazine.
- Mullangi, S. & Jagsi, R. (2019). Imposter syndrome: treat the cause, not the symptom. Journal of the American Medical Association, 322, 403-404.
- Neureiter, M., Bechtoldt, M. N., & Rohrmann, S. (2017). All imposters aren’t alike – differentiating the impostor phenomenon. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1505.
- Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). An inner barrier to career development: preconditions of the impostor phenomenon and consequences for career development. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 48.
- Stanley, G. (2019). “Why Do I Feel Like a Fraud? The Science behind Imposter Syndrome.” The State Press.
Edited by Gabriel Nah and Riddhi Sood