The Impostor Syndrome

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.

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]
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.

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!

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo.


Joseph Kellard said...


As someone who is having a tough time finding a new job, and who has thus been compelled to take a deeper look at myself career-wise, I found this post particularly interesting.

Thank you for it, and I hope you find the motivation to blog further on such psychological-philosophical issues.

Joseph Kellard

Gus Van Horn said...


I'm glad you found this so interesting. Thank you for taking the time to say so.

The subject of how bad philosophy effects us psychologically is a rich vein, but also a very complex one by its nature, and outside my field of specialization, which makes it hard for me at this point to know HOW to approach it all the time. (But I do find it interesting and so will occasionally risk looking stupid to try from time to time!)

What to DO about such difficulties is something of a tough nut to crack, but definitely one that having the right philosophical tools at ones disposal can help with quite a lot. One is in a much better position to find (and perhaps even improve upon) the good advice out there, as well as to reject the bad.


evanescent said...

Hi Gus

great post. Thanks for this intriguing article and bringing it all together so nicely.

Gus Van Horn said...

You're welcome!

Your comment, by the way, has jogged my memory about looking into more material by Objectivists on psychology.

I know there's a good bit out there, but I haven't read that much of it. So I'm doubly glad you stopped by.

Grant said...


Great post. I believe I can attest to your take on things. I've long had a love-hate relationship with philosophy. I can honestly say that, aside from maybe throwing a baseball, philosophical reasoning - driving to the philosophical root of an issue - is really the only thing which I have mastered the art of. And, as those of us who have an active interest in philosophy well know, it is by and large a labor of love.

The reasons for the periodic hatred of my ability, aside from it's lack of direct financial utility, is that the need for rational philosophical principles, by their very nature, is universal. Often, my motivation is sapped, sometimes instantly, by the realization that the only reason why I'm dissecting the philosophy of a given problem is because someone else, who has the power to directly affect a solution, is not. It's like I'm merely cleaning up someone else's mess and, frankly, that has never been my dream job.

I often wonder how people in law enforcement find the enthusiasm to come to work every day when they know that somewhere else on Earth, at the same time, someone else is inventing something amazing or is simply falling in love.

Another factor is the resentment I often feel towards my parents, my educators, and I suppose the culture in general for being so resolutely ignorant of what I - and other Objectivists - see so clearly. Once I finally validated that the learning of a valid philosophical (I mean, espistemological) approach was properly the achievement of a high schooler, I felt alot of sorrow at having lost all of my early 20's to my own torturous re-education.

I know that part of the solution to this feeling is learning to understand the limits of my own intelligence and talents, as well as holding firm to the knowledge that philosophy (and philosophers) will always be necessary, but that is a momentous task. Possibly even more momentous than finding the solutions to the problems I am so sporadically inclined to take on.

Gus Van Horn said...

I'm lucky I find the philosophical mess so fascinating and, perhaps, that I take a little after my Dad, who was a cop, in the "emotional iron stomach" department, if that's the right way to describe what you're talking about.

The mess doesn't bother me, but the lost time really does. I try to focus on the fact that I have several decades left to live, rather than on what I have lost to our bad culture. Numerous people I respect have started new careers even later in life than I am now.

You touch on something I think most Objectivists go through. (I think some have called it "Objectivitis".) It's like a prolonged awakening for a non-"morning person": very unpleasant, but worth it when you're done.

As the old Latin saying goes, "Don't let the bastards grind you down!" (Or their philosoiphy....)

Grant said...


I don't think that "Iron stomach syndrome" is the right way to describe what I'm talking about. It's not that I can't take it - I certainly take on alot more of it than I need to in order to put food on the table - it's that I don't want to take it. I won't presume to know what motivates police officers. I can only guess that it's a passion for justice - as if it's on par with any other rational pursuit. It probably is, I, personally, just haven't learned why just yet.

Moving on...

For instance, when I come across an article such as this I don't want to proceed. It's a mixture of ennui and plain, stark frustration towards how much intentionally-placed nonsense must be cut away before anything productive can occur. I think that the emotional tone of my comment below the article should corroborate that claim. I've gone through long periods of time where I've intentionally tried to avoid learning about current events exactly for the sake of my psychological/emotional health, and I must admit, it did feel good - despite the fact that I've always relapsed out of a worry that I was guilty of evasion.

Being a perfect stranger, I don't mean to burden you with my emotional quagmires. I only release them because I know that they might be of use to you when you get around to studying Objectivist psychological theories. But, I definitely do like the term "Objectivitis." I had never heard that before and, considering just how important one's senior year in college really is, I think that it's a very fitting and clever term.

Gus Van Horn said...

"I've gone through long periods of time where I've intentionally tried to avoid learning about current events exactly for the sake of my psychological/emotional health, and I must admit, it did feel good - despite the fact that I've always relapsed out of a worry that I was guilty of evasion."

As you indicate, we are strangers. I don't have your full context, but I'll go out on a limb here....

Your guilt about what sounds to me like a floating abstraction ("evasion") seems like a more urgent issue for you than wallowing in the cesspool of current events. (And this sounds subjectivist, but recall that egoism is about living YOUR life.)

The whole point of Objectivism is to make you, as an individual, better able to live your own life and to achieve happiness.

One's proper reaction to doing something he realizes is immoral ought to be the dread of realizing how unpleasant the consequences will be.

Your guilt at not personally taking on the salvaging of Western civilization is unearned: You did not help it happen and there is only so much any one person can do to fix it.

Yes, you should do what you can (or support those who do), but everyone has his limits, and everyone has his own life. At the point that intellectual activism becomes a sacrifice of something more important, it is no longer a proper course of action.

This might be easier to comprehend with a monetary analogy. You have bills to pay. If you can't afford to send twenty bucks to ARI, doing so is actually immoral. On the other hand, if you're a billionaire, understand the grave threat to your wealth that statism represents, and realize that what ARI is doing is the most effective way to end that threat, then it would be immoral not to donate something.