Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve really only got where you are by a mixture of luck and bluffing? Such feelings are often experienced by high achievers who believe they’ve successfully deceived others into believing they’re something they’re not, and so fear that their true lack of ability will be discovered. Psychologists call it the ‘imposter phenomenon’ and a new study reports the feeling is more common among women and people who measure their own success against the achievements of others.
Shamala Kumar and Carolyn Jagacinski gave 93 male and 42 female undergrads questionnaires that tested their experience of the imposter phenomenon (by probing their agreement with statements like “I can give the impression I am more competent than I really am”; see here for more examples). Other questionnaires gauged their views on intelligence, their experience of test anxiety, and attitudes towards achievement.
Kumar and Jagacinski found the female students agreed with significantly more imposter-related statements than the male students, and that among the female students only, feelings of being an imposter tended to be associated with the belief that intelligence is a fixed attribute that cannot be developed over time.
Men who reported feelings of being an imposter approached tasks with the aim of avoiding negative comparison with their peers, agreeing with statements like “The reason I do my work is so others won't think I'm dumb”. Women who felt like imposters tended to seek favourable comparison with their peers, agreeing with statements like “I would feel successful at university if I did better than most of the other students”. Indeed, across both sexes, those students who had feelings of being an imposter tended to measure their own success against the achievements of others, rather than viewing task success as an end in itself, and so they tended to disagree with statements like “I do my work is because I like to learn new things”.
Kumar, S. & Jagacinski, C.M. (2006). Imposters have goals too: The imposter phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 147-157.
Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.