The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

The Imposter Syndrome

Why do so many successful women feel they are frauds?

Margaret ChanOne of the many things I learned from reading Susan Pinker’s excellent book The Sexual Paradox:  Troubled Boys, Gifted Girls and the Real Difference Between the Sexes is the phenomenon that Pinker calls the “imposter syndrome.”  According to Pinker, many highly accomplished women suffer from the feeling that they are imposters and they do not belong where they are and they don’t deserve what they have accomplished through their own talent and hard work.  Why do these women feel this way?

Pinker devotes an entire chapter of her book to this puzzling phenomenon.  One of the highly accomplished women Pinker quotes is Dr. Margaret Chan, the Chief of the World Health Organization, who was famous prior to the publication of Pinker’s book in 2008 for her excellent handling of the H5N1 bird flu epidemic but is now in 2009 famous for her excellent handling of the H1N1 swine flu pandemic.  Pinker writes:

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Her ability, conviction, and good judgment saved countless lives.  But Dr. Chan discounted her native smarts – and the opportunity to promote herself – attributing it all to luck.  Another public health expert physician, an acquaintance of mine, once told me that her expertise in tuberculosis is “a fluke.”  She travels the world to give lectures.  She talks to the media and helps draft policy.  Yet the diminutive, sharply dressed doctor has wondered aloud why people treat her with deference.  “There are an awful lot of people out there who think I’m an expert.  How do these people believe all this about me?  I’m so much aware of all the things I don’t know.”

The stories of professional women Pinker interviews vividly illustrate a widespread phenomenon first documented by Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes in their 1978 study of 150 highly successful professional women in various fields.  “Despite accolades, rank, and salary, these women felt like phonies.  They didn’t believe in their own accomplishments; they felt they were scamming everyone about their skills.”

In the chapter, Pinker admits to feeling the same way about her own professional success, and apparently she’s not the only one.  A 1984 study of randomly selected American psychologists reports that nearly 70% of them feel like imposters.

The imposter syndrome also affects the truly rich and famous.

Michelle Pfeiffer had been nominated for three Academy Awards and six Golden Globe awards when she described her self-doubts in an interview in 2002.  When asked how she had developed her gifts, Pfeiffer responded, “I still think people will find out that I’m really not very talented.  I’m really not very good.  It’s all been a big sham.”  Kate Winslet, too, has been frank about doubting her talents.  “Sometimes I wake up in the morning before going off to a shoot, and I think, I can’t do this.  I’m a fraud.”

Robin Pollock Daniel, the highest-ranked female Scrabble player in the world in 2006 tells Pinker:  “I care a lot about winning....  That’s what distinguishes me from a lot of women.  I hate to lose....  Still, I go into every game and there’s a small female voice that says, You don’t belong here.  You’re fraudulent.  It’s the female thing.”

But why?  Why is it a female thing?  Why is the voice that whispers the self-doubt female?  What truly fascinates me as an evolutionary psychologist is that, according to Pinker, it is purely limited to successful women; successful men apparently never feel like they are frauds.  Researchers in a subfield of cognitive psychology called causal attribution have long known about the persistent sex difference in attribution style.  Men are more likely to attribute their success to internal factors (their ability and effort) and their failure to external factors (task difficulty and luck), whereas women are more likely to attribute their success to external factors and their failure to internal factors.

But why?  For once, I don’t have an answer.  The phenomenon of imposter syndrome suffered by many successful women, but few successful men, truly puzzles me, and I don’t know why there is a sex difference in it.  Why do so many highly accomplished women feel they are frauds, imposters, and phonies when their male counterparts don’t?

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

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