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Imposter Syndrome And Environmental Sampling

Written by Rebecca Brown

Imposter syndrome has received recent, though still fairly limited, philosophical discussion. Scholars such as Katherine Hawley (and, drawing upon Hawley in a recent and excellent podcast, Rebecca Roache), amongst a handful of others have illuminated issues such as how we can develop a useful definition of imposter syndrome, the extent to which imposter syndrome may be adaptive, and the relationship between imposter syndrome beliefs and rationality. I want to pick up on this last question and suggest a further way in which people might rationally adopt ‘imposter attitudes’.

Imposter syndrome, as described by Hawley, involves believing that the external markers of esteem and success one receives are undeserved, and feeling at risk of being exposed as a fraud. Imposter attitudes refer to the negative attitudes one might hold regarding one’s own ability. Hawley challenges the common assumption that those suffering from imposter syndrome are simply too unconfident. She describes how people might justifiably (though mistakenly) hold imposter attitudes as a result of ‘hostile social environments’. This includes, for instance, people who are less likely to receive positive feedback in their work environment, or have reason to believe that any positive feedback they receive is insincere. For such people, although they have some evidence of their talent (e.g. publishing papers or winning awards), they have other evidence that this could be undeserved (e.g. lack of positive feedback from colleagues). Hawley is particularly concerned about minority groups who she suggests are more likely to experience hostile social environments and feel like impostors.

There’s another way in which people might (mistakenly though justifiably) interpret evidence as showing they’re not up to scratch. When trying to judge how good we are at our jobs, we might reasonably compare ourselves to others – how regularly are our peers publishing, winning grants or getting promoted? Sources of evidence for this are places where people share this information widely, such social media, as well as direct communications (e.g. between colleagues over lunch). We accumulate evidence via environmental sampling – looking around us to see what evidence is available. Sometimes we seek this out actively (e.g. looking at the success rates for grant applications on the funder’s website) but it also comes to us passively (scrolling through twitter and receiving news of a colleague’s publication in a top journal).

This passive method of sampling is particularly likely to produce biased evidence. People typically (though not exclusively) share news of successes more than failures. Published articles are there for us to see and read; unwritten or unpublished ones are not. People who publish lots are, by definition, more likely to appear in journal tables of contents. If people are more likely to share successes rather than failures, those who win grants, get promotions or publish frequently are also more likely to show up on twitter feeds and other social media. This will creating a distorted picture of what’s normal. (For similar reasons, one’s friends tend to be more popular than oneself, since popular people are, by definition present in many more people’s social networks than less outgoing individuals.) We are therefore more likely to see evidence of our peers’ successes, and less likely to see evidence of their failures. Of course, we can’t escape the evidence of our own failures – often these loom larger than any successes. And so, relative to others, we appear to ourselves as relatively less successful, even if we are performing similarly well.

How can we correct for this? One way is to make our evidence more representative of what’s going on in the world – de-bias our sample. This probably means avoiding social media sites altogether, or at least editing those we follow to avoid the most egregious self-promoters. Obviously there are costs to this: we might not find out when someone has published an interesting article and we’ll probably miss out on other news we care about. But for those for whom imposter syndrome is particularly distressing, this could be a reasonable sacrifice. As well as avoiding passively sampling in a biased way, we could do more active sampling in a way likely to give a representative picture of people’s successes (and failures). Talking to colleagues directly and on a regular basis is more likely to yield tales of the same kinds of struggles and frustrations that almost all of us experience in our professional lives (of course, working from home makes this harder). We can also seek out evidence on success rates for grant applications, or journal rejections, or whatever the markers of success are in one’s line of work.

As well as strategies to avoid evidence that enhances our own imposter attitudes, we should consider what evidence we create to support others’ imposter attitudes. Roache wants to reassure us that it’s fine to present ourselves in the best light possible – loading our CVs with all our achievements and carefully hiding any less flattering aspects of our performance. According to Roache, in doing so we are merely ‘playing the game’ as we are expected to do. 

I’m more ambivalent about this. Are we not responsible for knowingly presenting evidence that people will misinterpret? If we ourselves experience imposter attitudes as a result of others’ reports of their successes on Twitter (and silence regarding their failures), then we should expect others to experience these negative self-evaluations when we self-promote in the same way. Knowingly adding to people’s mental anguish is, I think, best avoided. Whilst I certainly don’t suggest people submit a CV of failure to a job application, perhaps we should consider broadcasting a somewhat more representative image via social networking sites. This could include, for instance, mentioning the number of rejections, or rounds of revisions, or years spent in draft form a newly published paper has experienced.

This is not cost free. Refusing to ‘play the game’ of self-promotion could put one at a professional disadvantage. Indeed, publicly sharing one’s failures could even act as a form of counter-signalling: perhaps only those who are sufficiently successful and professionally secure can afford to publicise their failures without fear of damaging their reputation. Still, considering how we might cultivate a more balanced picture of people’s typical win/loss record seems like it could have valuable consequences.

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