Thursday, April 14, 2011

Beyond the Imposter Syndrome

I came across a blog post at "On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess" in which the blogger, Isis, announces that the "imposter syndrome" is a scam.  In case you've not heard of it, this condition is one in which the person secretly feels like an imposter in their field, despite being highly competent and successful.  They are afraid that eventually everyone will find out that they are not a real scientist. Graduate students (in general) and women in STEM fields seem to suffer disproportionately from this problem.

Anyway, Isis expresses frustration over how many women are moaning about suffering from this condition. I think the concern here is that women will attribute any failure (to land a grant, to publish a paper) to this syndrome and this behavior will, consequently, enhance the belief that they are imposters.  I also suspect that those who have read or written a lot about the imposter syndrome have become weary of it and think that there is nothing new to be learned.

However, I think there is more to be understood about imposter syndrome and its opposite, the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I think of as the "overinflated ego syndrome".  The Dunning-Kruger effect is one in which the person overestimates their abilities...and the more incompetent they are, the higher their level of confidence in their abilities. At first glance, it seems incomprehensible that people who constantly make mistakes or fail to meet performance expectations would paradoxically believe that they are competent or skilled. However, the mental skills required to be competent at any task (e.g., ability to assess what steps to take to accomplish the task, to gauge standards of performance) are the same skills needed to accurately evaluate one's own competence.

Kruger and Dunning summarize the key features of such people:
  1. They tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. They fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. They fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy

Thus, people who are generally incompetent are unable to gauge their own performance correctly and tend to over-inflate their performance (in their minds) relative to the performance of others.  Ehrlinger et al. provide the following example:

" produce a grammatically correct sentence, one must know something about the rules of grammar. But one must also have an adequate knowledge of the rules of grammar in order to recognize when a sentence is grammatically correct, whether written by one's self or by another person. Thus, those who lack grammatical expertise are not in a position to accurately judge the quality of their attempts or the attempts of other people. In addition, because people tend to choose the responses they think are most reasonable, people with deficits are likely to believe they are doing quite well even when they are, in reality, doing quite poorly."

Sufferers of the imposter syndrome are just the opposite.  In psychological terms, imposter syndrome is a condition in which the sufferer is not able to internalize his or her accomplishments and skills.  They are highly critical of themselves and tend to over-inflate the performance of those around them.  If we use graduate students as an example, we can see the dynamics involved in creating the imposter mindset.  Students are in a subordinate position from virtually every standpoint. They interact with people who are obviously competent and superior (professors) and who constantly tell the student (in various ways) that they are not yet competent at the skills required to succeed in their field of study.  When the student is thrust into a position of responsibility (they graduate and get a job), they may find it difficult to transition from the "incompetent" to the "totally competent" mindset.  They may go on to develop "imposter syndrome".

These two syndromes are neatly summarized in one of my favorite sayings: "Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge." Charles Darwin.

Of course, these are two extremes along a wide spectrum of mental states. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, perhaps with more women toward the imposter end and more men toward the inflated ego end (I have no data, just more than 40 years of observations). We may shift between these mental states over time, depending on our history and new situations.  I recall feeling like an imposter right after attaining my Ph.D., but this faded with time and experience. I can envision someone taking on a job in a new field and initially feeling like an least until some experience in the new position is gained.  You can probably think of many other examples.

So what does all this have to do with women in science and does this information lead to any insights as to how we may solve some of the "challenges" we face?  More in the next post.

No comments: