Just how robust is the evidence for impostor syndrome?

by Suw on August 9, 2023

Cat peering out from behind a cardboard box

Too shy to come out and meet you? Or lying in wait to attack your ankles?

I’m starting to suspect it’s impostor syndrome that’s the impostor.

In 2019, Dena Bravata and her colleagues carried out the first review of studies of impostor syndrome in order to understand prevalence, to see if there were any predictors or co-morbidities (ie health issues that tended to occur alongside impostor syndrome), and assess the efficacy of any treatments being used.

They found 62 studies, with a total of 14,161 participants, that fit their criteria and were included in the review. Half of the studies had been published in the six years prior to the review.

Bravata and her colleagues defined impostor syndrome as “high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or impostor” and say that “People with impostor syndrome struggle with accurately attributing their performance to their actual competence (i.e., they attribute successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others and attribute set-backs as evidence of their professional inadequacy).”

Through the lens of last month’s post asking whether impostor syndrome really exists, I can’t help but hear a little voice chatting away in the back of my head that wonders if perhaps attributing successes to external factors such as luck or receiving help from others might be, well, accurate? Perhaps some of the people exhibiting what we consider to be symptoms of impostor syndrome are just being honest about the level of collaboration they engage in or, heaven forfend, perhaps they’re being modest?

We know that women are more modest and less likely to self-promote than men, not because they want to be, but because they have to be – they are judged more harshly than men for any perceived immodesty. Women, and other minoritised groups, learn early on to keep their heads down because there is a cost to taking credit where it’s due.

Looking at both the Young and the Clance impostor syndrome scales that I have to hand, it strikes me that there’s not a question on them that couldn’t also be explained by a lack of self-confidence, and/or excessive modesty, and/or perfectionism.

Bravata notes that impostor syndrome isn’t a recognised clinical psychiatric disorder, despite its presence in both academic literature and in the general media. And it’s not even clear whether it’s widespread or rare:

Prevalence rates of impostor syndrome varied widely from 9 to 82% largely depending on the screening tool and cutoff used to assess symptoms.

To me, this suggests that there’s neither consensus on the symptoms of impostor syndrome nor on what level of ‘severity’ warrants the label. Without some consistency, comparing studies surely becomes challenging, if not impossible, unless you’re going to take the raw data and reanalyse everything the same way.

Another problem that’s highlighted by this paper is that about half of the included studies were of students with a mean age of 20 years. Five studies evaluated elementary and high school students. Just 17 studies had a mean age of 30 years or more.

Now, I’m not saying that young people can’t be high achievers, but I’m really struggling to see how feelings of inadequacy are in any way abnormal for people in that age group. I don’t mean to be glib, but surely a lack of self-confidence is de rigueur for many children going through puberty and adolescence?

Students with impostor syndrome had fears that were significantly related to maintaining their social standing and not wanting to display imperfection to others

Once again, this feels like a pathologising of normal reactions to periods of great change. Going through puberty and just existing as a teen can really suck. That doesn’t mean that they have some sort of syndrome, it means that they are navigating a challenging part of their lives that they will, eventually, grow through.

This is, as it happens, emphasised by the fact that students with strong social support structures and higher self-worth experienced less impostor syndrome, and those who experienced more also experienced pessimism, perfectionism, and low self-esteem. Colour me so unsurprised I need a whole new Pantone number.

Interestingly, those who experienced impostor syndrome were less likely to cheat or plagiarise. Perhaps having too much self-esteem can be a bad thing in young people whose impulse control has yet to finish developing?

Now, what about the professionals that were studied?

Given the tendency of people with impostor syndrome to aggressively pursue achievement while not being able to accept recognition when success is achieved, affected employees may experience increased levels of stress, burnout, and decreased job performance and satisfaction over time. Employees who persistently question their professional legitimacy are at higher risk of experiencing adverse psychological outcomes with implications to career retention, advancement, and job performance. Moreover, impostor feelings among employees is associated with fear of failure, fear of success, and low self-esteem. Employees who report more impostor feelings report less career planning and motivation to lead.

Well, that sounds awful. Impostor syndrome appears to ruin everything. But, as the mantra goes, correlation isn’t causation. There’s no indication here about the direction of causality. Is impostor syndrome actually causing these outcomes, or are high levels of stress, burnout, low job satisfaction causing the impostor feelings?

Viewed through the lens of the hostile workplace, where women and other minoritised groups experience bias and prejudice on a regular basis, it doesn’t make sense that it’s impostor syndrome causing poor outcomes, but that the poor outcomes and the impostor feelings are both caused by hostile workplaces.

I might be missing something, but I can’t see anything in this paper that refutes that idea.

individuals who struggle with impostor syndrome may be limited in their ability to fully develop their professional potential

Or, maybe, let’s just throw this out there, shitty workplaces make it difficult for women and minoritised groups to reach their potential? Maybe?

Bravata et al mention that none of the papers they found discuss specific treatments for impostor symptoms, and for that I’m glad. The more I read, the more I think that interventions should be either environmental, ie fix shitty workplaces, or based on treating the co-morbidities that are genuine diagnoses such as depression or anxiety.

I currently don’t believe that impostor syndrome is an actual syndrome worthy of being listed in diagnostic manuals. What I can see is a need to examine causality in a more robust way: What is actually causing these impostor feelings? And are they independent of other problems such as workplace hostility, depression, anxiety, etc. (noting, of course, that workplace hostility can cause depression and anxiety).

You might, at this point, wonder what this has to be with writer’s block? I’m glad you asked!

One of the points made by this paper is that there’s an absolutely huge number of articles in the non-academic media about impostor syndrome:

During the year (March 28, 2018–March 18, 2019), 2317 Internet articles were published on impostor syndrome (150– 200 articles/month).


the vast majority were tagged as “What is…” articles, which define impostor syndrome followed by “How-To” articles, which offer treatment tips. Many of the articles classified as “What is…” articles also include tips about how to manage impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome is mentioned regularly in relationship to writing and writer’s block, but before we start reaching for treatments, we have to ask whether impostor syndrome really exists as a separate thing that can be defined and measured. Because if it doesn’t, then we’re going to get the wrong answers to our questions.

I’m going to continue my reading of the academic literature on impostor syndrome and I guess we’ll see if I change my mind. But for now, I’d say that the majority of what we consider to be ‘impostor syndrome’ is more likely a combination of low self-confidence, perfectionism, anxiety and depression on the one hand, and a normal reaction to bias and prejudice in the workplace and, indeed, wider world on the other. Thinking of it like that allows us to look at our own impostor feelings a little bit more critically and ask ourselves what’s going on underneath, because that will help us find better solutions.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: