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Crosspost: Impostor syndrome and pretense

Written by Neil Levy

The original version of this article was published at New Work in Philosophy.


It’s hard to get any sort of reliable estimates of its prevalence, but impostor syndrome seems to be very widespread. Lots of people report feeling it, at least on occasion, and we might well suspect those who deny experiencing it of some sort of overcompensation.

When someone we know reports feeling like an impostor, we’re often in a good position to testify that the feeling is unjustified. But reassurance from a friend or colleague isn’t much help, because they’d probably reassure us anyway (and maybe those few people who would or do report your feeling is accurate are jerks who are no more reliable in their criticism than our friends are in their support). Sometimes, these feelings may be accurate: after all, emotions can give us insight otherwise unavailable to us. But very often they’re not, and it seems impossible to tell from the inside.

I argue that these feelings should not be given any significant weight, because they’re expectable accompaniments of occupying the sort of roles that give rise to them. This is an important project, because these feelings seem more prevalent among members of historically disadvantaged groups, so undermining their epistemic status might be a matter of justice.

Why do we feel like impostors? As a number of philosophers have emphasized, the feeling or belief that one’s success is importantly due to luck is always justified. You probably worked hard to get where you are, and you may be smarter than most, but for every person who succeeds (in landing that tenure-track job, say), there are dozens just as smart and who worked just as hard. You were lucky: your paper happened the catch the eye of a committee member, your mentor happened to have met another member at a conference, your parents encouraged you just that little bit more…. At the same time, as Slank emphasises, the culture of genius in philosophy encourages others to downplay how hard they worked, so it seems to you that you worked harder than your peers. They are effortlessly brilliant; you work your ass off.

Fake it till you make it

Other philosophers have emphasised that the person who experiences impostor syndrome has evidence that appears to support them in believing they are impostors. I argue that they have an additional reason to believe they’re faking it: they are faking it. We all are. Pretense is an unavoidable element of coming to occupy a professional role. Seeing the world as a philosopher, with the values and habitus of a philosopher, requires, first, role-playing being a philosopher.

Philosophy, and other professional roles worthy of the name, has goods and values that are internal to it as a practice. To say that they’re internal is not to say anything about their objective value; rather, it’s to say that they can only be properly grasped from inside the practice. It’s impossible fully to grasp them until one occupies the role. That puts the person who aims to see the world as a philosopher in a difficult position: she’s trying to acquire a perspective that has a value she can’t yet grasp.

Pretense is an important element in coming to inhabit the role. We bridge the gap between being a novice, who grasps practice-internal values and goods only indistinctly, and the expert by playing at being the expert. To become a philosopher, you need to comport yourself as a philosopher. You are, to some degree, an impostor: you’re pretending to skills and values you don’t yet have, in order to come to have them. Pretense is, as Agnes Callard says, proleptic: it projects one into the future in order to realize it. To some degree, we may remain pretenders for much of our career: we may always be trying, by faking it, to grasp values more fully. It’s likely, though, that pretense falls away slowly, so that by mid-career our reality matches the experience more fully.

Impostor syndrome arises when people become aware of the extent to which they’re faking it. If I’m right, we’re all faking it, to some degree. But some of us are more likely to be conscious of the fakery than others. This account may help explain why impostor syndrome is associated especially with members of historically disadvantaged group, and also why the empirical evidence doesn’t support the association. Members of historically disadvantaged groups don’t engage in more fakery than anyone else (except, perhaps, to the extent that the trappings of academia – meals at conferences and chit chat during breaks – reflect middle class practices they may not have grown up with). But they’re more likely to be made self-conscious, and self-consciousness might make them more likely to notice their pretense.

There’s some evidence that people who work in fields where they’re a minority are more vulnerable to impostor syndrome. That’s not surprising: those kinds of conditions are more likely to make the person self-conscious, and self-consciousness makes it more likely they’ll notice their pretense. Katherine Hawley suggested that awareness that others see one as a potential beneficiary of affirmative action policies might also trigger impostor syndrome: again, the causal route might run through self-consciousness. Anything that makes people pay attention to their comportment makes them painfully aware of their pretense: since they can see it in themselves, but they can’t see it in others, they have evidence they’re impostors whereas others aren’t.

This hypothesis also explains why the empirical evidence hasn’t supported the claim that impostor syndrome is more likely to occur for members of some groups than others. These studies ask people whether they experience impostor syndrome: they make people attend to their comportment and therefore notice their pretense. My suggestion is that in the absence of such prompting, members of disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, because they’re more likely to be brought to be self-conscious. An experience-sampling methodology could be used to test whether prevalence truly differs.

Impostor syndrome reflects our reality: we’re all impostors to some degree. It’s mistaken only when someone concludes, on the basis of awareness of their pretense, that they’re faking it to a greater degree than others. Getting out the news that we’re all fakers might help to undercut the evidence that is generated when we become aware of our pretense. To the extent that impostor syndrome affects members of disadvantaged groups more than others, that might be a matter of justice.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. The result of a world without standards, without judgement. Chaos. Anyone can transmogrify into anything they want. Regardless of race, justice, gender and social class and other Marxist-based labels, in a world based on merit, merit ascribed by meeting agreed-upon standards, an individual can be shown objectively that they are not imposters. Imposter Syndrome is a mental disorder. It is more than irrational self-doubt. I believe what you have described in your essay is closer to the creeping self-doubt that is becoming prevalent in a society where standards no longer matter. We are erasing the social framework of the old regime and have not replaced it with a schema that is as organic, long-developed (millennia), unanimous and obliquitous.

    Knowledge is power, and there is no longer a monopoly on that power. It is however, reverting back via the centralization and consolidation of the portals of information. The old regime was top-down, and the new regime forming is as well and finding much as in the aeons past, that it must have some form of structural integrity to be useful. That is why it so closely resembles the structures of the past. A rose by any other name.

    A person with Imposter Syndrome sets a standard in their minds that exceeds the actual standard or justifies away any praise they receive. This is a psychological disfunction, a type of magical thinking that goes beyond being irrational. Any of us has moments of doubt or failings of nerve but these are fleeting and the subject returns to the event afterword embarrassed or having a feeling of humourous self-deprecation. A person suffering from Imposter Syndrome will obsess over the event or may even maintain a totem or artifact of the event in obsession of the guilt of being a fraud. In this, I believe you have a point of some merit regarding those who have been labeled. Labeling produces trauma-based responses such as Imposter Syndrome. This labeling is the underlying cause of those who percieve themselves to be “less than”. This may be of increased prevalence for minorities or women but it is casual vis a vis labeling writ large.

    Again, I don’t disagree with your essay but caution the closeness with which you group Imposter Syndrome with casual self-doubt or “nerves”. This is like saying having clinical depression is like a case of the blues.

    Great article, very interesting. Cheers.


  2. I’d like to clarify that the framework I mentioned above is a description of Western/ European society and may not include overlap into Non-Western societies. In addition, I mention that the terms and the theoretical forces behind the terms I mentioned as described by Marx are mentioned as generative and not as a social critique of the socio-economic theories of Marx. I merely mean that the old framework is dissolving without a definitive, socially agreed-upon replacement. In retrospect I should have said that standards being redefined, are not yet agreed-upon, rather than saying that there were “no standards”. On this I hope to have not caused offense and was merely writing in brief. Thanks.

  3. This appears closely aligned with thoughts of all reality being mere illusion:- Ergo each worldview consists of illusory constructs creating intellectual sense of what is seen and felt with the choice of which illusions to accept and deny creative of the worldview. With many thinkers applying the illusory reality created by thought to both the social and scientific worlds, thought would necessarily require a flexibility rather than a strictly given value bound basis thereby reducing traction for any singular ideology.
    Could it be that illusions which are accepted but left open to question possibly create feelings supportive of the imposter syndrome for some, whilst for others maintaining a recognition of a world forever undergoing change denies many such feelings; and yet mored individuals when firmly denying changing circumstances turn an illusion into a deception which in time can become challenging to their worldview.
    Considering that and confidence as a word appears to have a limited contextual relevance unless applied in an individual sense determining a particular mindset maintaining a compatible assemblage formative of a worldview, rather than defending any particular circumstance included within. Would something like that result in an open and enquiring mind which allowed the perception of any pretences applied in other worldviews, whose constructs may support nothing more than strawman assemblages specifically designed to create or continually maintain a structured social groups worldview, which at times disallows the individual freewill necessary for fully moral reflection. Could such a mental stance not conceptually address the issues you raise?

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