Impostor Syndrome, an Idea Whose Time Has Come . . . Again

January 8, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

The impostor syndrome is the dancing partner of pluralistic ignorance. That was the point of the previous post. In pluralistic ignorance, each person thinks that others are doing better at living up to cultural ideals. On campuses where “hook-up culture” rules, most students think that everyone else is having more sex and better sex than they are. Two axioms from Goffman account for this misperception. First, norms require that people present more or less idealized versions of themselves and keep contradictory, self-damaging information to themselves. Second, absent any contradictory information, we accept and ratify the self that the other person presents. These norms make it easy for real impostors to go unchallenged for so long.*

Unless we are playing Humiliation (see the previous post or David Lodge’s novel Changing Places), we don’t tell our colleagues which classics in our field we haven’t read. Instead, when the conversation turns to Weber’s Economy and Society, we nod and keep our silence, assuming that most of the others in the room have read it at least once. Maybe we make a tangential comment, or ask a general question, and the others for their part, observing our wisdom, assume that we too have made our way through all 1700 pages. We, meanwhile, feel like an impostor. (And by we in this paragraph, I mean me. And maybe you.)

The phrase in the seminal 1978 article** was “impostor phenomenon,” but “impostor syndrome” quickly became the more popular choice. It was a phrase just waiting to be coined.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

The sharp increase of “imposter syndrome” in print did not reflect an increase in the thing itself. It was already widespread; it was just hiding in plain sight. It was the feeling that could not speak its name. But once someone did speak its name, people were seeing it everywhere.

Did impostor syndrome have a precursor? It did indeed. In the 1920s and 30s, “inferiority complex” followed a similar trajectory.

The person most responsible for putting the concept in play was psychoanalyst Alfred Adler. He used the term “inferiority feeling,” but in the same way that phenomenon gave way to syndrome with imposter, Adler’s feeling was soon swamped by complex. Wikipedia describes it as “feelings of not measuring up to standards, a doubt and uncertainty about oneself, and a lack of self-esteem.” Which sounds a lot like impostor syndrome. The “inferiority complexes” was popular in the 1940s and 50s, but nowadays, it’s hard to find anyone who has one, sort of like a Studebaker.

From the sociological perspective, the trouble with both these versions is that they emphasize the individual. That’s obvious with “inferiority feelings,” which assumes that these are a matter of individual psychology. But even the studies that look at gender, class, or race take these as permanent characteristics of the individual. What these ignore are the structural, situational conditions that make the feelings more likely or less likely.  And these conditions may matter far more than the psychological or demographic characteristics of the individual.

I hope to explore this idea in a later post.

* Frank Abegnale, the impostor played by Leo DeCaprio in “Catch Me If You Can,” once got a university adjunct position in sociology. He said he was a sociologist, and nobody tried to prove him wrong. He moved on after a semester, probably to keep ahead of the law. But apparently his student evaluations were good. The department chair asked him to stay for another semester.

** The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice. 15 (3): 241–247.

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