Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Imposter Phenomenon

From today's NY Times article "Feel Like A Fraud? Maybe You Should":
Social psychologists have studied what they call the impostor phenomenon since at least the 1970s, when a pair of therapists at Georgia State University used the phrase to describe the internal experience of a group of high-achieving women who had a secret sense they were not as capable as others thought. Since then researchers have documented such fears in adults of all ages, as well as adolescents.
But what's more interesting is that in further research, imposterism has been reversed and intelligent/confident people pose to be less smart or less talented to downplay their own abilities. I've often noticed this "imposter phenomenon" among overachievers where a smart person will offer excuses or redirect to lower expectations.

In a 2000 study at Wake Forest University, psychologists had people who scored highly on an impostor scale predict how they would do on a coming test of intellectual and social skills. An experimenter, they were told, would discuss their answers with them later.

Sure enough, the self-styled impostors predicted that they would do poorly. But when making the same predictions in private — anonymously, they were told — the same people rated their chances on the test as highly as people who scored low on the impostor scale.

In short, the researchers concluded, many self-styled impostors are phony phonies: they adopt self-deprecation as a social strategy, consciously or not, and are secretly more confident than they let on.

“Particularly when people think that they might not be able to live up to others’ views of them, they may maintain that they are not as good as other people think,” Dr. Mark Leary, the lead author, wrote in an e-mail message. “In this way, they lower others’ expectations — and get credit for being humble.”

Psychologists view impostering to be more of a self-presentation strategy than a personality trait. In my experience with overachievers, a lot of smart people use it to "fit in" with a crowd of normal people (Yeah, I went to MIT but I partied most of the time...) or to "hedge their intelligence" among other smart people in case they do poorly (I was up all night and then drank 2 cups of coffee before the presentation, so it might not go that well...). I think it's common among well-educated 20-30 year olds and I must admit to a small amount of impostering, myself.

We must play the imposter role well or we risk being exposed, which is even more socially awkward than just being smart (Why didn't you say you went to Harvard in the first place instead of trying to dance around it?). It's an odd balance to be an overachiever - one doesn't want to come off as a smarty-pants or arrogant about past accomplishments, but we also want people to suspect that we're smarter than we let on.

Over the years I've realized that it's OK to be intelligent, it's OK for people to see how hard you work, and it's OK if the results aren't as good as you had hoped. If anything, it's admirable to be comfortable with who you are and open about those kinds of things.
  • When have you been guilty of impostering?


Hoop said...

I was just reading this on the NYT site and thought "I should come over and send the link to Lee." And you beat me :)

But to answer your question...I've been guilty of impostering pretty much every time someone asked me where I went to school, and it's definitely widespread among students. We called it "dropping the P-bomb" and would avoid it at all costs because it usually elicited an awkward response such as "so you must be smart!" (how do you answer that?!). It feels like the whole dynamic of the conversation changes and the other person thinks differently of you than they did 20 seconds earlier. Recently I've been trying to be more straightforward, but it's a hard habit to break!

Lee Knight said...

Thanks, Hoop. I agree...I used to try to avoid the question, saying I went to a school up in Boston, but then I'd feel even worse when they say oh, BU or BC? Then I'd have to really have to answer the question and feel even weirder.

When they do find out I went to MIT, there's always someone who'll say "Let Miss MIT divide up the bill," which is almost worse punishment than not fitting in :)