People who systematically underestimate themselves and their own performance suffer from so-called impostor phenomenon


People who systematically underestimate themselves and their own performance suffer from so-called impostor phenomenon. They think that any success is due to external circumstances or just luck and chance. Those people live in constant fear that their “deception” will be exposed.

In a new study in Personality and Individual Differences psychologists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) show for the first time that even under real-life conditions the phenomenon appears regardless of age, gender, and intelligence.

Up until now it had only been investigated on the basis of surveys or individual cases.

It is common for people to question their abilities now and again.

“A healthy amount of reflection and self-doubt can protect a person from acting rash,” explains Kay Brauer from the Institute of Psychology at MLU. However, there are people who are permanently plagued by a massive amount of self-doubt despite delivering a good performance, such as getting good grades or getting positive feedback at work.

“They think that all of their successes are not a product of their skill or hard work, instead they attribute their own successes to external circumstances, for example to luck and chance, or believe that their performance is massively overestimated by others. Failures, on the other hand, are always internalized, as the result of their own shortcomings,” Brauer adds.

These people suffer from so-called impostor phenomenon.

This personality trait has so far only been investigated in so-called vignette studies.

“These studies determine how strongly the participants agree with various theoretical statements, such as that they find it difficult to accept praise or that they are afraid of not being able to repeat what they have achieved,” Brauer explains.

The psychologists from Halle examined the topic for the first time under real-life conditions.

Seventy-six participants completed a range of intelligence tests and received positive feedback on them, regardless of their actual performance. They were then asked why they think they did so well.

The study showed two things: First, the self-reported degree of impostor phenomenon is not related to actual measured intelligence or performance. Secondly, the test supported the assumption that people with a tendency to the impostor phenomenon devalue their objectively measured performance and attribute positive results to external causes such as luck and chance, but not to their own abilities.

“These results are also completely unrelated to age and gender,” says Kay Brauer.

A permanent underestimation of one’s own abilities is often accompanied by the fear that this supposed intellectual deception will be exposed sooner or later and that people will pay the price for this.

The impostor phenomenon was first described in 1978 by US psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They observed that there is a particularly high number of successful women who do not think they are very intelligent.

“The impostor phenomenon is not defined as a mental illness. However, people who suffer from it show a higher susceptibility to depression,” says Brauer, who hopes that the new study will pave the way for possible interventions.

Imposter Phenomenon

Imposter phenomenon, also known as imposter syndrome or imposterism, was initially believed to be associated predominantly with high-functioning, high- achieving professional women who had experienced a great deal of success in their chosen fields but had difficulty internalizing their successes or attributing them to their own abilities (Clance & Imes, 1978).

Although presenting as very confident and competent, underneath the façade they tended to discount any evidence of their own achievement and feared being unmasked as incompetent and unintelligent (Clance & Imes). Mistakes were viewed as humiliating failures, and they focused on negative as opposed to positive feedback (Clance, 1985b).

Clance (1985b) also suggested there is an imposter profile comprised of six components.

  • The first component is the impostor cycle in which sufferers engage in self-doubt, fear they cannot repeat their accomplishments, and dwell on past failures. They may experience doubt, worry, anxiety and fear around a project and either overwork and overprepare or procrastinate.
  • Second is the need to be special or the best and, when they fall short of the best, exhibit a tendency to dismiss their very real talents.
  • Third, the superwoman/superman aspect results in the need to do everything perfect and with ease.
  • Fourth, a fear of failure associated with shame and humiliation that results in drastic measures to avoid making mistakes, including avoiding challenges or any situation in which there is a possibility of not excelling.
  • Fifth, denial of competence and discounting praise resulting in an inability to accept positive feedback.
  • Finally, fear of and guilt around success due to the fear of consequences stemming from family-of-origin or environmental messages.

Other researchers have suggested there may be IP typologies. For example, researchers Leonhardt and colleagues (2017), in their study of highly experienced executives, found evidence of two different types of imposters. The first group, labeled “true” imposters, exhibited the negative self-views generally associated with imposter phenomenon sufferers.

However, the second group, labeled “strategic” imposters, exhibited less of the self-views characteristic of imposter phenomenon, leading the researchers to suggest that this group may have been engaging in deliberate self-presentation designed to both lower expectations and appear more modest.

It has been speculated that vulnerability to imposter phenomenon (IP) may be embedded within social discourse on gender. Clance and Imes (1978) originally believed IP was a function of the internalization of societal sex role stereotypes purporting that women were not as competent as their male counterparts.

The researchers suggested that the women’s difficulty in attributing their success to their own ability made sense as, overall, women tended to have lower expectations of their ability to effectively complete tasks than men as well as a tendency to attribute their successes to unstable external factors and their failures to stable, internal factors (Deaux, 1976 as cited in Clance & Imes, 1978). Although subsequent research has suggested IP is not gender specific, and men can also experience a sense of imposterism (Cowman & Ferrari, 2002; Cromwell et al., 1990), prevalence findings are mixed.

Some research has found females were more likely to score higher on IP measurements (Bernard et al, 2017; Cusak, et al., 2013; Legassie et al., 2008; Li et al., 2014; McGregor et al., 2008; Oriel et al., 2004) while other research found no gender differences (Caselman et al., 2005; Clark et al., 2014; Hutchins et al., 2018; Rohrmann et al., 2016; Sonnak & Towell, 2001). The relationship between gender and IP remains unclear and further research is needed.

However, a link has been established between the construct of gender stigma consciousness (GSC) and IP (Cokley et al., 2015). GSC is defined as chronic awareness of one’s gender stigmatization status. Those who score high on GSC tend to believe that they will be judged based on their gender as opposed to their performance only (Pinel, 1999).

Cokely et al. found that GSC positively predicted IP in both women and men, although it was stronger for women, and proposed that those scoring higher on GSC internalize feelings of being an intellectual fraud more often than those with lower scores. Although only one study, these findings suggest that how individuals view their gender may impact the likelihood of developing IP more than actual gender.

Other research suggests that IP, for people of color, is influenced by experiences of racial discrimination and minority stress. For example, McClain et al. (2016) found, in a sample of African American college students, a positive correlation between IP and levels of minority status stress, including racial discrimination, insensitive or marginalizing comments, and fears of not belonging.

Similarly, Bernard et al. (2018) found a positive correlation between racial discrimination and IP and further suggested that experiences of racial discrimination can increase feelings of imposterism over time. In addition, Bernard et al. (2017), in a study of African American emerging adults, found an interaction between gender and racial discrimination and IP. Specifically, African American women who reported higher frequencies of racial discrimination incidents and lower levels of distress due to the discrimination were more likely to develop IP.

Further, IP was found to serve as a moderator in the relationship between racial discrimination and mental health for African American students, in that impostorism increased the strength of the relationship between perceived racial discrimination and depression. (Cokley et al., 2015).

Research has also explored the prevalence and associated factors of imposter phenomenon in various populations. For example, a sample of assistant professors reported experiencing IP as emotionally unsettling and disruptive. Participants also described adverse psychological outcomes, such as stress and anxiety, and unfavorable work outcomes, such as avoiding opportunities, working harder, and procrastination (Hutchins & Rainbolt, 2017).

A larger study focusing on academic faculty found an association between avoidant coping styles and higher levels of IP scores, a pattern the researchers believed contributed to participants’ low job satisfaction (Hutchins et al., 2018). For undergraduates, higher IP scores were associated with lower mental health scores and higher scores on test anxiety and perfectionism (Cusak et al., 2013; Wang et al., 2018) and higher scores on the Beck Depression Inventory (McGregor et al., 2008).

Additionally, IP was linked with fear and worry as well as anxiety and guilt in response to praise or achievement in a sample of emerging adults (Lane, 2015). Villwock et al. (2016) found that imposter phenomenon was associated with women, burnout, exhaustion, emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and depersonalization for a sample of medical students.

For medical residents, higher rates of IP were positively associated with low self-esteem and institutional culture (Gottlieb et al., 2020) as well as burnout (Gottlieb et al., 2020; Legassie et al., 2008), depression, and anxiety (Oriel et al., 2004). Rohrmann et al. (2016) found imposter phenomenon to be associated with higher levels of anxiety, dysphoric moods, emotional instability, negative self-evaluation and perfectionism in a sample of managers.

Several factors have been found to be predictive of imposter phenomenon. For example, an anxious attachment style and narcissistic expectation/self-promotion predicted higher levels of IP (Gibson-Beverly & Schwarts, 2008). Additionally, lack of parental care and parental overprotection were linked with higher imposter scores; however, only maternal care was negatively correlated with IP scores for males while both maternal and paternal care were negatively associated with IP for females (Li et al., 2014).

Similarly, parental overprotection or a lack of care in the paternal parenting style (Want & Kleitman, 2006) and a greater degree of perceived parental control were strong predictors of IP (Sonnack & Towell, 2001). Finally, higher scores on workaholism and mistrust and lower scores on self-esteem predicted higher IP scores (Ross & Krukowski, 2003).

Factors found to act as buffers against the development of IP included social support, validation of success, positive affirmation, and both personal and shared reflections among physicians-in-training (Gottlieb et al., 2020). Higher levels of self-compassion, defined as kindness and understanding towards self (Neff, 2003), were negatively associated with higher levels of IP for first year undergraduates (Patzak et al, 2017).

For adolescents, friend support served as a buffer against IP for males. Females, however, also needed the support of parents, teachers and classmates (Caselman et al., 2005). Peteet et al. (2015), in a sample of talented African American and Hispanic undergraduates, found that two components of racial identity, high affirmation and belonging, and higher levels of environmental mastery were identified as protective factors against IP.

Hutchins et al. (2018) suggested using active coping styles may be a protective factor, based on findings that those experiencing IP tended toward avoidant coping styles that possibly contributed to low job satisfaction. Some studies have found that increased levels of experience in the profession were associated with lower levels of IP (Clark, 2014; Urwin, 2018) whereas others have not (Royse-Roskowsky, 2010).

reference link :

Original Research: Open access.
The Impostor Phenomenon and causal attributions of positive feedback on intelligence tests” by Kay Brauer et al. Personality and Individual Differences


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