New – depressing – research on the Impostor Phenomenon

I’ve written before about the imposter syndrome, the idea that a person can have any success is due to external circumstances or just luck and chance and people will find out soon. New research shows that even under real-life conditions the phenomenon can appear regardless of age, gender, and intelligence.

In short:

  • The Impostor Phenomenon (IP) is characterized by attributional styles.
  • 76 Participants completed numerical and verbal intelligence tasks.
  • Participants received positive feedback on their performance.
  • IP does not relate to actual performance in intelligence tests.
  • IP relates to attributing positive feedback to external-instable-specific causes.

From the press release:

People who systematically underestimate themselves and their own performance suffer from so-called Impostor Phenomenon. They think that any success is due to external circumstances or just luck and chance. Those people live in constant fear that their “deception” will be exposed. In a new study in “Personality and Individual Differences” psychologists from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) show for the first time that even under real-life conditions the phenomenon appears regardless of age, gender, and intelligence. Up until now it had only been investigated on the basis of surveys or individual cases.

It is common for people to question their abilities now and again. “A healthy amount of reflection and self-doubt can protect a person from acting rash,” explains Kay Brauer from the Institute of Psychology at MLU. However, there are people who are permanently plagued by a massive amount of self-doubt despite delivering a good performance, such as getting good grades or getting positive feedback at work. “They think that all of their successes are not a product of their skill or hard work, instead they attribute their own successes to external circumstances, for example to luck and chance, or believe that their performance is massively overestimated by others. Failures, on the other hand, are always internalised, as the result of their own shortcomings,” Brauer adds. These people suffer from so-called Impostor Phenomenon.

This personality trait has so far only been investigated in so-called vignette studies. “These studies determine how strongly the participants agree with various theoretical statements, such as that they find it difficult to accept praise or that they are afraid of not being able to repeat what they have achieved,” Brauer explains. The psychologists from Halle examined the topic for the first time under real-life conditions. Seventy-six participants completed a range of intelligence tests and received positive feedback on them, regardless of their actual performance. They were then asked why they think they did so well.

The study showed two things: First, the self-reported degree of Impostor Phenomenon is not related to actual measured intelligence or performance. Secondly, the test supported the assumption that people with a tendency to the Impostor Phenomenon devalue their objectively measured performance and attribute positive results to external causes such as luck and chance, but not to their own abilities. “These results are also completely unrelated to age and gender,” says Kay Brauer.

A permanent underestimation of one’s own abilities is often accompanied by the fear that this supposed intellectual deception will be exposed sooner or later and that people will pay the price for this. The Impostor Phenomenon was first described in 1978 by US psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. They observed that there is a particularly high number of successful women who do not think they are very intelligent. “The Impostor Phenomenon is not defined as a mental illness. However, people who suffer from it show a higher susceptibility to depression,” says Brauer, who hopes that the new study will pave the way for possible interventions. Customised training programmes, for example, could help improve self-esteem, job satisfaction, and the general well-being of those affected.

Abstract of the study:

The Impostor Phenomenon (IP) is characterized by an external-instable-specific attributional style (i.e., Impostors perceive successful performance as due to chance). To our knowledge no study has yet tested this notion in real-life situations. Therefore, we invited 76 participants to complete computer-based numerical and verbal intelligence tasks, gave them positive feedback, irrespective of their actual performance, and assessed their attributions of the positive performance feedback. While the self-reported IP was unrelated to psychometrically measured intelligence (rs ≤ 0.07), those high in IP discounted their performance and attributed the cause for their performance as external-instable-specific (r = 0.40). The findings hold when controlling for age, gender, and actual performance. Our study extends the knowledge on the associations between the IP and causal attributions of performance. We discuss how addressing attributional styles could benefit interventions for the IP.

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