“Imposter syndrome” has become a popular term recently in the jargon of the internet. People use it to describe feeling unworthy of their success. While there’s been a lot of discussion about this phenomenon online, the research on it is limited. A study published in Personality and Individual Differences seeks to test this phenomenon in real-life situations.
The Imposter Phenomenon, or imposter syndrome, is a concept about individual’s perceptions of their own capabilities, or lack thereof, being disproportionate with their level of accomplishment. Despite evidence to suggest capability, such as a job, education, experience, some individuals think their accomplishments are fraudulent and not deserved.
This phenomenon is linked to more anxiety, increased depression, and decreased job satisfaction. This is thought to be related to attributional styles, which describe what people believe in causing events. An internal attribution is placing responsibility on one’s ability or personality, while an external attribution could be blaming chance or fate.
Kay Brauer and Rene T. Proyer utilized 76 university students to serve as their sample. Participants completed an online survey comprising of demographic questions and an imposter syndrome measure two days before the lab session. During the lab session, participants were told they would be completing an intelligence test. Despite their actual performance on these tasks, all participants received praise and were told they scored very well. After this, participants completed measures on attribution.
Results showed that imposter syndrome was unrelated to performance on these tasks, but people with higher rates of imposter syndrome did not attribute their perceived success to their own abilities, but rather attributed it to luck and chance. Since attributional styles are related to mental health and depression, this link could be an explanation for why imposter syndrome itself is linked to depression and anxiety.
Though this study took steps into further understanding imposter syndrome, it also has its limitations. One such limitation is that the sample was solely comprised of German-speaking undergraduate students, which could limit generalizability. Additionally, this study only tested attribution in the context of good performance; future research should include attribution in bad performance as well.
The study, “The Imposter Phenomenon and causal attributions of positive feedback on intelligence tests“, was authored by Kay Brauer and René T. Proyer.