Have you ever felt that any success you are having is random, and is only because of some external circumstances or just luck? You may have what is called imposter syndrome and you are not alone.
People who systematically underestimate themselves and their own performance live in constant fear that their “deception” will be exposed.
A new study1 shows for the first time that even under real-life conditions the phenomenon happens, and it happens regardless of age, gender, and intelligence. Up until now it had only been investigated on the basis of surveys or individual cases.
It is normal for people to question their abilities once in a while. A healthy amount of reflection and self-doubt can stop a person from doing something they might later regret. 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 internalised, as the result of their own shortcomings,
said Kay Brauer from the Institute of Psychology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg.
This imposter syndrome 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,
Testing Imposter Syndrome
The team of psychologists investigated the phenomenon 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:
the self-reported degree of impostor syndrome is not related to actual measured intelligence or performance.
the test supported the assumption that people with a tendency to the impostor syndrome 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,
said Kay Brauer.
Possible Interventions For Imposter Syndrome
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 syndrome was first described in 1978 by US psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes2.
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,
said Brauer, who hopes that the new study will pave the way for possible interventions. Customised training programmes, for example, could help improve self-esteem, job satisfaction, and the general well-being of those affected.
Kay Brauer, René T. Proyer The Impostor Phenomenon and causal attributions of positive feedback on intelligence tests Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 194, 2022, 111663 ↩︎
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978) The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247 ↩︎