Tag Archives: Success

On Being Phony at Being Phony: The Impostor Phenomenon

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Do you ever feel like you are, in some way, a fraud? Despite your successes in life – your good grades, your professional accomplishments, the high praise you receive from others – have you felt like you will eventually be unmasked as an impostor? This feeling is surprisingly common, and has been termed the Impostor Phenomenon (or Syndrome). It’s not a “real” disorder (you won’t find it in the DSM), but it is a very real phenomenon that affects many genuinely successful people.

First described by Clance and Imes (1978), these feelings are especially prevalent among graduate students, who feel they have been let in by accident, and they will eventually be unmasked as intellectual frauds. This is a concertn that is particularly relevant to the readers of this blog. However, the Impostor Phenomenon often lingers with highly successful professionals. A partial explanation could be that the more we progress in an area, the more we become aware of the limitations of our knowledge and abilities. This is not a new idea; Bertrand Russell said “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” But that may not be the whole story; many researchers have suggested the Impostor Phenomenon disproportionately affects women, raising the question of whether internalized negative self-stereotypes may be working to sabotage perceived self-efficacy and the internalization of success.

There is still a lot we don’t know about the Impostor Phenomenon – its frequency, distribution among demographic groups, ultimate causes, and how to reduce its negative effects. Much more empirical research is needed. But we can say for sure that if you feel like your successes have somehow been an accident and that it is only a matter of time before you are unmasked, you are by no means alone, and you share this feeling with many of the bright and talented. If you do feel this way, try talking with your friends and advisors about it. You may be surprised to learn just how common it is to feel like an impostor.

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. (1978). The Imposter Phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15, 241-247.

Laursen, Lucas (2008). No, you’re not an impostor. Science Careers.

Never Gonna Give You Up

800px-StudyingIt is generally assumed that telling friends and family about your current goals is beneficial. A great deal of research has shown that when people explicitly state their intentions, they are more likely to follow through. This might be for a number of reasons including the need for self-consistency and the benefits of social support.

However, a recent investigation showed that publicizing your goals may actually lead to a lower likelihood of working toward them. In 4 studies, Peter Gollwitzer and colleagues (2009) asked people to report how important certain goals were to them. These responses were then turned into the experimenter who read them over (making them socially known) or set it aside without looking at them (making them private). Following this, the students completed tasks that were related to their goals. In all studies, they found that while both groups were made up of people strongly committed to their goals, it was people who kept their goals private that were more likely to actually engage in behaviors that were consistent with their intentions.

This finding, while somewhat surprising, is actually consistent with work done by classic theorists such as Kurt Lewin. Namely, the act of stating one’s intentions publicly is symbolic and creates a premature feeling of success, leading people to feel as if they’re already on their way to achieving their goals. In turn, this false sense of accomplishment makes people less likely to engage in the necessary behaviors for achieving those goals. And with this, I’m off to work on some of my own goals, none of which I can or should tell you about.

square-eye Does announcing your goals help you succeed?

square-eye Gollwitzer et al. (2009). When intentions go public: Does social reality widen the intention-behavior gap?