Feeling Like a Fraud?

How pluralistic ignorance maintains the imposter syndrome.

Posted Nov 29, 2015

This weekend, I attended an event for local writers and was surprised to be struck by a crippling feeling of vulnerability as soon as I entered the room. It was immediately apparent that everyone was far more interesting, worldly, and articulate than I, and I was completely silenced by my inner critic. I resorted to nods and smiles as my fear of being exposed as a fraud overwhelmed my desire to connect with these seemingly cool and like-minded people. Instead of feeling like the published writer that I am, I felt like a bumbling imposter.  

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the imposter syndrome, a very real and persistent feeling of inadequacy, sense of fraudulence, and inability to take credit for one’s successes. Ironically, it tends to strike high-achievers and perfectionists. It persists even in the face of success as these successes are externalized (“I got lucky.” “My supervisor/team/partner really carried the day.”). How simultaneously reassuring and demoralizing to see yourself as a textbook case.

David Whittaker
Source: David Whittaker

Anyway, as I later relayed this experience to a fellow writer-friend, she said, “Yeah, we pretty much all feel that way. I’m not sure if anyone ever feels like a ‘real’ writer, no matter how successful they are.” In other words, so many of us, despite our very real successes, may live in quiet fear of being found out.

It then struck me that one very plausible explanation for the imposter syndrome is the social psychological phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance, or norm misperception. This occurs when a person (very reasonably) believes that other people’s outward behavior is an accurate reflection of their true attitudes. And it’s always better illustrated with an example. Prentice and Miller found that students individually reported some private discomfort with their university’s prominent binge-drinking culture. Critically, they also tended to believe that the “typical student” felt far more comfortable with it than they did. This disconnect carries the risk of isolation or alienation, and it can encourage conformity to a perceived norm. In this case, students can end up drinking more than they truly feel comfortable with to fit in. As the heavy drinkers are more visible than those students sitting at home quietly with a book, the misperceived norm is reinforced: everyone here is into this except me.

What does binge-drinking have to do with the imposter syndrome? The common thread here is that a damaging false reality is being created and maintained as people’s true feelings are suppressed.

As I reflect on my own recent experience, I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one struggling with self-doubt in that room of writers. The problem is, because we’re all so afraid of being exposed as frauds, our doubts are seldom given voice. This suggests a straightforward but scary course of action for combating imposter syndrome: if we risk vulnerability and occasionally take off our game-faces, the damaging belief that we all have it completely together can be directly challenged.

In a culture where projecting confidence is key, we can forget that we are all real people who occasionally question our abilities and grapple with our imperfections. Take heart, high-achieving self-doubters: You’re not alone.


Prentice, D. A. & Miller, D. T. (1993), Pluralistic ignorance and alcohol use on campus: Some consequences of misperceiving the social norm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 243–256.