The Imposter Syndrome: Fake it till you… fake it some more

The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity – The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats

Recently, several of my clients have described themselves as having the Imposter Syndrome. All of these people would be described as conventionally successful, in high status positions. Mostly, they are doing quite well in their jobs by objective measures such as client/patient/customer feedback and supervisor/management reviews. But they report feeling like a fraud. What’s going wrong here?

The Imposter Syndrome is not a clinical term, but it was coined by clinical psychologists. Doctor Pauline R. Clance and Dr Suzanne A. Imes introduced the term in 1978, after they interviewed 150 high-achieving women for a study. Many of these women underestimated their professional knowledge and attributed their success more to luck than talent. Although the initial research focussed on women, subsequent research has indicated that it may be equally common in men.

So, many high achievers doubt themselves. But what about the opposite? Do low achievers over-estimate their abilities/knowledge? It sometimes seems that the world is full of non-experts with an inflated opinion of their opinions. Is there a name for that?

There is. In 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger found that non-experts lack insight into their ignorance of specialist areas of knowledge. They were more likely to report being confident of their knowledge than the people with careers in these fields. This finding was labelled the Dunning-Kruger effect.

It seems that the Dunning-Kruger effect is largely due to non-experts not understanding just how much there is to know in a given field. On the other hand, real experts have awareness that there is always more to know, and one person can’t know it all. Dunning explained this in a recent article:

“For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack”.

This ability to know-what-you-don’t-know is referred to meta-cognition, and it may be a hallmark of the true expert. The political punter, who has spoken to three friends, is more certain about the result of an upcoming election than the political professional, who has pored over complex statistics. The panicked patient who has just watched a documentary on asbestos is more certain than the dour doctor who knows he doesn’t know yet.

A marvellous example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and the imposter syndrome, exists in the biography of Socrates. Socrates is widely viewed as the father of western philosophy and one of the wisest people ever to live. This story (taken from the US public broadcasting website) is too good not to read in whole:


After his service in the war, Socrates devoted himself to his favourite pastime: the pursuit of truth.

His reputation as a philosopher, literally meaning ‘a lover of wisdom’, soon spread all over Athens and beyond. When told that the Oracle of Delphi had revealed to one of his friends that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, he responded not by boasting or celebrating, but by trying to prove the Oracle wrong.

So, Socrates decided he would try and find out if anyone knew what was truly worthwhile in life, because anyone who knew that would surely be wiser than him. He set about questioning everyone he could find, but no one could give him a satisfactory answer. Instead they all pretended to know something they clearly did not.

Finally, he realized the Oracle might be right after all. He was the wisest man in Athens because he alone was prepared to admit his own ignorance rather than pretend to know something he did not.


So, you have the imposter syndrome. You are in good company. Take your feelings of ignorance and inadequacy as a sign that you are aware of the limits of your knowledge – a gift only bequeathed to those who are true experts. Look upon the seemingly confident with pity – their opinions of their abilities are signs that they are verily self-deceived.

If your doubt makes you a fraud, remember Socrates. Only the wisest amongst us are prepared to admit their ignorance.

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