It’s almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases, because I’m just going, ‘Any moment, someone’s going to find out I’m a total fraud, and that I don’t deserve any of what I’ve achieved’ — Emma Watson
Emma Watson’s confession represents a characteristic feature of imposter syndrome, a condition suffered by many intelligent, driven, and successful individuals—Maya Angelou, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein, to name a few. People with imposter syndrome feel like frauds because they believe themselves to be less able (e.g., talented, knowledgeable, intelligent) than their peers. The truth of the matter is just the opposite: they are just as, if not more, able. They also have ample evidence in support of this, in the form of achievements, accolades, awards, and the like. A puzzling feature of the phenomenon is the way in which these individuals treat such evidence: dismissing, ignoring, and avoiding it at every turn. In my recent paper, Imposter Syndrome and Self-Deception, I offer an account of this behaviour.
It begins with the fact that humans are motivated reasoners: we reason in ways that not only track truth but advance other interests. One such interest is self-motivation. Think of the student who motivates herself to study by focusing on how unprepared she is for an upcoming exam, or the dieter who motivates himself by selectively focusing on the fatter parts of his body. These kinds of self-motivational strategies suggest a compelling hypothesis: that people with imposter syndrome shirk praise and discount their achievements in order to motivate themselves.
In my paper, I lay out a number of conditions that ensure negative beliefs about one’s own abilities bestow an appealing motivational benefit. One condition is a strong desire to succeed in a domain where considerable effort is required. This is a common feature of imposter syndrome, which frequently afflicts success-driven individuals in competitive and challenging environments (e.g., corporate management, academia, and professional sports). In such cases, considerable effort is required to succeed, making motivation a hot commodity.
Another condition is the belief that natural ability can be compensated for with hard work. There is good reason to assume that people with imposter syndrome believe such a thing. After all, they work exceptionally hard, despite believing that they lack natural ability. Indeed, many profess to working hard in order to compensate for this lack; as a self-motivational strategy, then, imposter syndrome seems to pay off.
For highly success driven individuals, the motivational benefit of negative self-appraisal may be precisely what is required to succeed in the environments in which they find themselves. Given the motivational benefits of imposter syndrome, perhaps we should rethink whether it necessarily ought to be eradicated; perhaps we should instead try to mitigate some of its more harmful features.
* Thanks to Dan Williams for useful comments.