Imposter syndrome

There has been quite of lot of coverage in the blogosphere about Imposter Syndrome. I think it started with this post from Porto Sentido. Imposter syndrome is essentially a sense some people have that they are somehow inferior to their colleagues and that they may, one day, be found out.

I certainly identify with this to a certain extent, but always thought it was perfectly natural. A certain amount of self-doubt seems sensible (to me at least), especially given that, as scientists, we should always be questioning what we do. It’s also something that, in my case, has lessened with time. When I was younger, I think there was a stage when I wondered if anyone would ever tell me that I really wasn’t cut out for a career in science. It actually did, sort of, happen once. I was working with a group who were keen to keep me after I’d been offered another job. They managed to find some extra funding and I met with the head of department to discuss the offer. He then proceeded to essentially say that, although the group I worked with clearly thought well of me, he had looked at my cv and he wasn’t terribly impressed. Needless to say, I took the other job (although this became an amusing story, rather than the reason I decided not to accept their counter offer).

Maybe I haven’t suffered from a particularly severe form of Imposter Syndrome. Having read some of the other posts, however, it does seem to be a general sense of uncertainty and self-doubt, rather than something particularly debilitating. I imagine there must be different levels of Imposter Syndrome but, in general, I suspect that it is something that can often be reasonably healthy. It’s good to question yourself and what you are doing and sometimes it may actually be sensible to decide that an alternative, or change in, career might be a good thing.

What I find more worrying than Imposter Syndrome, is what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is supposedly a syndrome in which people fail to recognise their own deficiencies and also underestimate the abilities of others. I suspect that the existence of both syndromes is the real issue. For example, I think that our Universities are preferentially run by those who lack self-doubt but are not nearly as competent as they think they are, while competent people who have a healthy level of self-doubt avoid putting themselves forward for more senior positions. This is also exacerbated by the fact that many sensible and decent people don’t really want these more senior positions, as they would often rather keep doing what they’re good at and enjoy.

I don’t know how you solve these issues. Good mentoring would probably help. Maybe a more pro-active approach to encouraging people to consider putting themselves forward for jobs that they may do very well. I certainly seem to encounter numerous decisions from our university management that very few, if any, think are sensible. I don’t know if this is because the management is dominated by those who lack self-doubt, or if it is simply because of the hierarchical nature of our universities and hence the management feel perfectly comfortable making decisions against the advice of others. Either way I don’t think it is very healthy and having more people in senior positions who were willing to questions their decisions would be, in my view at least, a huge improvement.


9 thoughts on “Imposter syndrome

  1. It’s not just Unis – business and politics is raddled with egotists trying to prove something to themselves. However D-K is not about the semi-competent thinking they are better than they are – it’s about those who are truly incompetent thinking they are ‘pretty good.’ They are especially prevalent in ‘talent’ shows.

    • I agree that this isn’t confined only to Universities, that’s just my area of expertise. I hadn’t really related D-K to talent show contestants. I had seen it as something slightly subtler than people who are simply deluded about their abilities. Certainly my take on D-K is that it applies to those who are sufficiently competent that they can mask their true level of competence. It seems, to me at least, to be a combination of enhanced self-confidence together with a lack of appreciation of the competence of others. Essentially, an assumption that you know better, even if there is no evidence to support that view.

      • ‘The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.’ (Wikipedia)

      • Sure, you may well be correct about Dunning-Kruger applying to talent show contestants. It does also (at least according to wikipedia) include a failure to recognise skills in others as well as a sense of illusory superiority and I wasn’t quite sure how the former applied to talent show contestants. I’m slightly more worried about those in senior university, business or government positions than I am about those who embarrass themselves on reality TV shows. Your final quote is quite instructive. I hadn’t really thought about the inverse of the Dunning-Kruger in quite that way.

      • “I’m surrounded by fools” (ohwhatagiveaway:-) I do wonder about Parliament and the higher echelons of the Civil Service. Basically in order to get there you have to be both ambitious and cunning, but do you have to be competent ? On the evidence, one would say not. But it’s not D-K, it’s more like narcissism.

      • Okay, maybe. Michael Gove seems to think he knows how to solve all our education problems despite the opposition that he seems to face from teachers and others in the profession. I would regard that as D-K. Could also be narcissistic. It’s not clear that the two are mutually exclusive. I’m not sure that I care all that much about precisely how to characterise those who seem much less competent than they would have us believe. I’m much more interested in working out how to minimise the damage such people can do – although I don’t really have any good ideas about how to do this or even if there is any point in trying.

      • Your last thought perspicacious. My wife is a teacher, and she’s nothing against Gove, but is simply worn out with the interference of educational theorists – fighting daily to get her kids up to a standard while being impeded at every turn. For example it may be good for the mentally- and socially-challenged to sit with their ‘smarter’ peers, but it is the latter (and the taxpayer) who pay the price. As for example with ‘Care in the Community” it sounds just dandy, but it doesn’t work. The Buddhist idea of ‘non-attachment’ is probably the way forward: you care and you act, but you do not let what goes wrong get to you.

      • If I understand your latter point, then I agree. We should have some trust in those who are providing services (teachers, nurses, doctors, …) and should – to first order – let them get on with their jobs and assume that, by and large, they want to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Things will go wrong, and we should learn from this but shouldn’t necessarily implement some new set of rules and procedures every time something unfortunate happens. We can’t eliminate all risks and trying to do so probably does more harm than good when people try to hide mistakes rather than admit them and learn from what went wrong.

      • Human nature sadly. However nowhere to hide with SATS methinks. That’s why they put my spouse i/c – in this case at a cost to my home life…

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