Impostors and the subtleties of self-presentation

‘Impostor Syndrome’ is where someone feels they aren’t as competent as everyone else thinks they are and fears they could be found out.

I’ve heard the term used by psychologists and in everyday language to describe this situation but never realised it’s been the subject of serious psychological research.

Several studies have looked at the issue and The New York Times has a brief article on the findings. They suggest that the ‘syndrome’ is actually more subtle than the simple description lets on – in fact, it may be a way of managing others’ expectations.

In a study published in September [pdf], Rory O’Brien McElwee and Tricia Yurak of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., had 253 students take an exhaustive battery of tests assessing how people present themselves in public. They found that psychologically speaking, impostorism looked a lot more like a self-presentation strategy than a personality trait.

In an interview, Dr. McElwee said that as a social strategy, projecting oneself as an impostor can lower expectations for a performance and take pressure off a person — as long as the self-deprecation doesn’t go too far. “It’s the difference between saying you got drunk before the SAT and actually doing it,” she said. “One provides a ready excuse, and the other is self-destructive.”

Link to NYT article on ‘impostor syndrome’.
pdf of McElwee and Yurak’s paper.

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