How Social Milieu Fosters the Impostor Phenomenon

In the 1970s, two therapists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, noticed a troubling pattern. Among their clients were women who were bright, capable, and accomplished, but, puzzlingly, sincerely doubted that they had earned their success. These women described feeling that they hadn’t really earned their spot; that they couldn’t accomplish the things others expected of them; that others may soon unmask them.

Clance and Imes named this pattern of feelings the impostor phenomenon—a belief that one didn’t truly earn their success, that success and certain achievements have been gained through luck. These beliefs are accompanied by concerns that one will inevitably be discovered and outed as an impostor. Today, the concept is often colloquially referred to as the impostor syndrome, though many believe this term is not appropriate because of its clinical and medical connotations.

Claims about the existence of an impostor phenomenon eventually caught on in academic spheres and beyond, in part because this phenomenon is so widespread; these feelings have been observed among individuals in the medical profession, academia, and business. Many people report feeling that they’re one slip away from being unmasked, even those who, like Clance and Imes’s clients, are exceptionally bright, capable, and hardworking.

Researchers have started to give more attention to how the situations and environments people find themselves in might actually prompt impostor experiences.

These feelings would be worth addressing even if only to ease their accompanying distress. But the impostor phenomenon has other costs too that strike deeply at people’s well-being. For instance, prior work has documented links between impostor feelings and depression and anxiety. The impostor phenomenon might also be an obstacle to science’s (and other industries’) chance to represent a diverse world—as Clance and Imes originally pointed out, impostor feelings affected primarily women. The casual observation that impostor feelings are gendered was substantiated by later studies: we know from a number of formal investigations that the impostor phenomenon is more often—and more intensely—experienced by women than by men. Others have speculated that women of color—who embody two marginalized identities—may be affected by impostor feelings most strongly.

To date, the majority of research has framed the impostor phenomenon as an individual affliction, consistent with the roots of this research in clinical psychology. Current recommendations for dealing with and mitigating impostor feelings reflect this view: these recommendations urge people to share their feelings of self-doubt with their friends and mentors, to accept the fact that no one is perfect, and reframe the way they view their accomplishments. In short, many researchers and laypeople locate the sources of impostor experiences in the individual.

Within the past three or four years, however, this view has started to change. Researchers have started to give more attention to how the situations and environments people find themselves in might actually prompt impostor experiences. In other words, researchers have begun to contextualize the impostor phenomenon. For example, one study found that the more undergraduate students expected to be stereotyped based on their gender, the stronger their impostor feelings were. This pattern was especially pronounced among women. Another study found that African American college students who experience racial discrimination report more intense impostor feelings. These findings were important because they began to position impostor experiences—which were traditionally regarded as individual afflictions—within a social milieu.

Following this trend, we, along with our colleagues, wanted to understand if certain workplace cultures—even ones that are ostensibly innocuous—might elicit impostor feelings from members of intellectually stigmatized groups. To do so, we focused on an important characteristic of academic fields: the extent to which the field’s members value raw intellectual ability—what we’ve termed “brilliance”—for success.

We focused on this dimension because we thought that contexts that heavily value brilliance are likely to be inhospitable for women, who are targeted by negative stereotypes about their intellectual abilities. So although environments where brilliance is prized might be experienced as neutral or even positive by some individuals, for women these messages are likely to be interpreted through the lens of ambient stereotypes about who is brilliant. Because of this, we thought that gender differences in impostor feelings might be exacerbated in fields where brilliance is seen as essential for success.

Whereas women’s impostor feelings increased as a field’s perceived emphasis on brilliance increased, men’s impostor feelings did not.

We were also interested in understanding how academics’ membership to groups traditionally underrepresented in academia (Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx, American Indian or Alaska Native) shape their impostor experiences in brilliance-oriented fields. We know that experiences in academia and industry depend meaningfully not just on one’s gender but on one’s racial-ethnic identity as well, and so it was important for us to understand how these two factors jointly contribute to impostor feelings.

We recruited more than 4,000 academics from nine universities across the United States for our study. Academics were graduate students, postdocs, and professors from more than 80 fields—including those in the natural and social sciences, the humanities, and medicine. We measured participants’ impostor feelings, and also asked them to evaluate the extent to which they thought their field values brilliance for success. To do so, participants rated their agreement with statements like, “If you want to succeed in [my discipline], hard work alone just won’t cut it; you need to have an innate gift or talent.” Academics self-reported demographic information as well, including their gender, race/ethnicity, and position.

Our results showed that gender differences in impostor feelings were larger when academics perceived their fields to value brilliance, suggesting that well-established gender differences might occur predominantly in inhospitable environments. And, importantly, whereas women’s impostor feelings increased as a field’s perceived emphasis on brilliance increased, men’s impostor feelings did not. For women, with a one standard deviation increase in perceived brilliance orientation, impostor feelings increased by 0.11 standard deviations. Clearly, these types of fields were psychologically threatening for women, but not for men.

We then broke the results down by gender and race/ethnicity. We observed that one group experienced particularly heightened impostor feelings in brilliance-oriented fields: underrepresented minority women. Compared to white and Asian women and men, and underrepresented minority men, underrepresented minority women reported the strongest impostor feelings when they viewed their field as brilliance-focused. For this group, with a one standard deviation increase in perceived brilliance orientation, impostor feelings increased by 0.18 standard deviations. This finding suggests that underrepresented minority women may be particularly likely to experience the impostor phenomenon in brilliance-oriented fields, perhaps because they are at the intersection of two marginalized identities.

We then wondered about the direction of this relationship: Is it that women reported experiencing stronger impostor feelings because they were in contexts that emphasized brilliance? Or, were women who experienced stronger impostor feelings in the first place simply more likely to appraise their field as brilliance-oriented, perhaps in an effort to justify their feelings? To address this question, we did an additional analysis that used a field-level—rather than an individual’s own—brilliance score. For each participant, we created a brilliance score by computing the average of all other brilliance ratings in their field, leaving out their own rating. In these analyses, we again found that gender differences in impostor feelings were larger in brilliance-oriented fields—fields such as philosophy, mathematics, and economics. And, as before, women’s impostor feelings increased as their field’s brilliance-orientation increased, whereas men’s impostor feelings did not. This result offered support for the first interpretation of the patterns we were observing: women felt like impostors because of their field’s emphasis on brilliance.

A final goal of this work was to better understand how impostor feelings might hinder the long-term success of academics. We found that academics who reported more intense impostor feelings didn’t just doubt the sources of their own success—they also reported less certainty about succeeding in future professional endeavors (also known as self-efficacy), and lower feelings of belonging in their field. In other words, these academics felt less valued, accepted, and respected by others in their field. This relationship between impostor feelings and self-efficacy and belonging was apparent regardless of academics’ gender, underrepresented minority status, or position.

Brilliance-focused fields would do well to alter their beliefs and messages regarding what it takes to succeed.

These results suggest that field-level environments that center brilliance relate to academics’ impostor experiences, but not equally: impostor feelings were heightened in brilliance-oriented fields among women, and especially among underrepresented minority women. To us, these findings indicate that brilliance-focused fields would do well to alter their beliefs and messages regarding what it takes to succeed.

In ongoing research, we, along with our colleagues, are exploring how specific features of brilliance-oriented environments might be modified to promote women’s well-being. In particular, we investigate whether mitigating negative elements of brilliance-focused contexts—such as competitiveness, aggressiveness, and independence—might have positive effects on women’s impostor experiences and sense of belonging. Promisingly, results suggest positive consequences of these sorts of modifications for women’s well-being.

More generally, we believe these findings more aptly situate impostor experiences at the intersection of people’s identities and their environments. We hope that future work will adopt a similar perspective and continue to foreground important contextual factors in pursuit of understanding and mitigating impostor experiences.