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Why So Many People Feel Like Impostors

Exploring the contextual underpinnings of impostor feelings.

Key points

  • The impostor phenomenon—an internal experience of intellectual fraudulence—is common among successful individuals, but particularly among women.
  • Gender differences in impostor feelings are magnified in contexts perceived to value “raw intellect” (i.e., brilliance) for success.
  • Impostor feelings are better understood as a response to unwelcoming environments, rather than an individual affliction.
  • The brilliance-valuing ethos may represent an obstacle to women’s professional advancement.

Co-authored with Andrei Cimpian

More than 40 years ago, two psychotherapists—Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes—noticed that many of their highly accomplished women clients did not “own” their success. The pattern was mystifying: These women excelled academically and professionally, and yet viewed themselves as unintelligent. They believed they had gotten as far as they had because others had overestimated their abilities and they worried that others would inevitably discover that they were impostors.

Clance and Imes termed these feelings the “impostor phenomenon,” a tendency to view one’s success as unearned while worrying about being outed as a fraud. After Clance and Imes’s initial publication, interest in the impostor phenomenon spread within academic circles, and then far beyond them. Later research substantiated initial claims that the impostor phenomenon is gendered by showing that women average stronger levels of impostor feelings than men. Other research documented that feelings of depression and anxiety often accompany impostor feelings—illustrating the impostor phenomenon’s relevance to psychological well-being.

 Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels
Source: Source: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Many, including leading experts on the impostor phenomenon, saw value in the personal management of these feelings: sharing impostor experiences with others, adjusting expectations of the self to be more positive, and accepting praise and compliments from others. Though well-intentioned, these recommendations, alongside research that examined the phenomenon’s association with personality traits, painted it as an individual affliction.

This may not be the case.

Recent research has shifted the focus away from the individual and toward environments and contexts that may be responsible for impostor experiences. For instance, one study found that African-American college students who had more frequent experiences with racial discrimination reported stronger impostor feelings. Another study showed that people who are more concerned with being stigmatized because of their gender experienced higher levels of the impostor phenomenon. Together, these studies offered support for the idea that environment plays a key role in impostor experiences.

Inspired by this shift in focus, we thought that certain workplace cultures—even ones not overtly negative—might prompt women to question their abilities and success.

In which contexts would impostor feelings most likely emerge? We expected that environments that value brilliance—that is, untutored intellectual talent—might lead women to question their abilities. Importantly, we anticipated this relationship because of ambient cultural stereotypes that characterize men, not women, as brilliant.

Our study set out to explore the contextual underpinnings of the impostor phenomenon. To do so, we surveyed more than 4,000 graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty from public and private universities across the United States. We asked academics to self-report their impostor experiences. Academics also appraised the extent to which their field values brilliance for success by rating their agreement with statements like, “Personally, I think that if you want to succeed in my discipline, hard work alone just won’t cut it; you need to have an innate gift or talent.” Finally, academics self-reported their position at their university (e.g., graduate student, postdoctoral scholar, or faculty), gender, and race and ethnicity.

Replicating prior work, women, as a group, reported higher levels of impostor feelings than men did. But crucially, the magnitude of this difference varied with a field’s orientation toward intellect: Gender differences in impostor phenomenon were magnified in fields perceived to emphasize brilliance over hard work for success. Notably, women’s impostor feelings increased as an emphasis on brilliance increased, but this was not the case for men.

We then considered whether impostor experiences depend on the confluence of academics’ multiple identities. That is, we examined relations between fields’ intellectual orientations and impostor feelings by academics’ gender and race/ethnicity—focusing now on whether academics identified as a member of an underrepresented minority (URM; i.e., Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino/a, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander). We broke the sample up into four groups: URM women, URM men, White and/or Asian women, and White and/or Asian men. Among these four groups, one in particular showed pronounced levels of impostor feelings in fields perceived to value brilliance: URM women. This finding substantiates prior speculation that women of color may be particularly likely to experience impostor feelings because of their doubly stigmatized identity.

In addition to investigating contextual underpinnings of the impostor phenomenon, we wanted to understand how it may impact workplace experiences: In what ways might impostor feelings undermine the long-term success of academics? In our sample, we found that academics who reported stronger impostor feelings also reported a lower sense of belonging—that is, they had reduced feelings of membership and connectedness with others in their academic community. Academics who felt like impostors also reported a lower sense of self-efficacy: They felt less certain about their ability to succeed in future professional endeavors. Given that belonging and self-efficacy are two key psychological processes that relate to persistence, retention, and performance, we suspect that impostor feelings may indeed limit the success of those who have to deal with it.

Our suggestion is that women’s impostor experiences stem from two sources: brilliance-valuing contexts combined with negative stereotypes that impugn women’s intellectual abilities. So what sorts of features of brilliance-oriented environments could be changed to protect women—especially those from underrepresented groups—from these negative stereotypes? In recent work, we and our colleagues have found that diminishing elements of brilliance-oriented environments, such as extreme self-reliance and ruthless competitiveness, have positive consequences for women’s psychological well-being.

Overall, these findings have significant theoretical and practical implications. Theoretically, we believe this approach to studying impostor experiences effectively answers growing calls to address the contextual origins of the phenomenon. Practically, we hope this research draws attention to the costs of the brilliance-valuing ethos. To prevent women, in particular those from underrepresented groups, from questioning their abilities, brilliance-oriented fields would do well to alter messages about what is essential for success.

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