Friday, February 29, 2008
Columnist Ken Hoffman of The Houston Chronicle is usually a pretty light read, but last weekend, he briefly mentioned a psychological condition I'd never heard of called the "impostor syndrome" and quoted the following description from a web site devoted to the condition:
Despite evidence of their abilities, many bright, capable people do not experience an inner sense of competence or success, believing instead that they have somehow managed to fool others into thinking they are smarter and more competent than they "know" themselves to be. [bold added]If the emphasis on innate ability rings a bell, it may be because you recall an intriguing article I blogged some time ago about how flattering children for their intelligence stunts the development of a work ethic and genuine self-esteem.
"That's the smart thing to do. Steer clear of situations where your dumminess may be exposed," jokes Hoffman, but this is exactly what children who have been told they are smart all their lives learn to do, as Po Bronson, discussing results of a psychological study, pointed out:
Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The "smart" kids took the cop-out.I think it would be inaccurate to claim that a tendency to flatter children for "being smart" is the sole cause of impostor syndrome, but I suspect that it is a major culprit, and not just for those being flattered.
Why did this happen? "When we praise children for their intelligence," Dweck wrote in her study summary, "we tell them that this is the name of the game: Look smart, don't risk making mistakes." And that's what the fifth-graders had done: They'd chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed. [bold added]
It's easy to see how the "smart" kids could develop impostor syndrome, but what of the ones who are not flattered? An article about the syndrome suggests how:
Such sentiments seem at odds with entrepreneurship. Starting companies, after all, requires plus-size confidence, and few positions are more exposed than the summit of one's own business. In addition, factors that often contribute to the impostor syndrome -- such as poor academic records and uninspiring early careers -- are badges of pride for many entrepreneurs, who often speak derisively of M.B.A.'s and have made "fake it till you make it" a mantra. [bold added]These people have had brilliance pounded into their skulls as an important quality all their lives. And they have also had it pounded into their skulls that they lack it. But they nevertheless do work hard, and they do in fact apply their minds successfully to problems.
In other ways, though, entrepreneurship is a perfect breeding ground for the syndrome. "People who have had bad experiences in organizations may see entrepreneurship as the only way out because it allows them to control their lives," says Manfred Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst and professor of leadership development at Insead, in France. With no boss, company founders can avoid critical scrutiny. Buffered by their relative control of the environment, entrepreneurs may feel ill-equipped to survive in the outside world. "I've always felt if I stopped doing Cornucopia, who would hire me?" says Stockwell. "If I think about it rationally, I know there's good reason I'm successful. But it wouldn't take a lot to shake my confidence." Adds Steven Myhill-Jones, CEO of Latitude Geographics Group, a $2.5 million geographic-analysis software company in Victoria, British Columbia: "I know my company, but I don't have skills that I could go apply somewhere else. I feel like a lot of what I've done has been a fluke or good timing." [bold added]Never mind that, as Louis Pasteur put it, "Chance favors the prepared mind." Someone who is not used to knowing his virtues as virtues -- but is used to not enjoying praise for the usual reasons it is handed out -- is going to fail to appraise himself in the way he deserves and he will expect others not to appreciate him. Only there is a twist: Since he "knows" that success demands a superior intellect, he feels a constant, nagging fear of exposure rather than occasional indignation.
Having said that, I reiterate that the kind of flattery of children so much in fashion today is probably not the only circumstance that can predispose someone to eventually have impostor syndrome. False theories about how man acquires knowledge also doubtless play a role, for example.
It is common, for example, for people to hold omniscience as a standard for knowledge, as seems to be the case here:
Another Achilles' heel has to do with expectations. The public assumes CEOs will be knowledgeable about every aspect of their businesses, and business is getting more complex. In this respect, those with scant education are especially vulnerable. "It's like the skills I have are just commonsense skills, like being able to relate to people," says [Bud] Stockwell. "They don't feel as valid as knowledge-based skills." [Steven] Myhill-Jones, for his part, is the founder of a software company who knows very little about technology. "To this day I can't do the work we do," he says. "I can make a comment on the user interface or something. But I don't understand the underlying technology." [bold added]Note that in addition to selling his well-honed interpersonal skills short as mere common sense (i.e., an ability everyone has), Myhill-Jones also accepts the false premise that he should understand technology in minute detail.
This man understands his limitations well enough to exploit division of labor to make up for them -- so well, in fact, that he can run a software company that probably employs its fair share of programmers who would be unable to head up a company on their own. Everyone does this in a sense every time he purchases services from someone else with an unfamiliar specialty. There is no shame in not being omniscient, so long as one takes his knowledge gaps into proper account.
The way in which philosophy can affect the culture extends beyond how it guides the actions of men to how the consequences of philosophy can affect us psychologically. Ayn Rand's essay, "Our Cultural Value Deprivation" (anthologized in The Voice of Reason), for example, discusses how modern culture can sap our motivation by making it difficult for us to achieve or experience many rational values. (Search "deprivation" at the link.)
The impostor syndrome strikes me as a particularly demoralizing example of value deprivation, in which countless individuals have been made unable to objectively evaluate their own good qualities and their own fitness for survival. Sad and fascinating all at once!
Today: Corrected a typo.