“That was a really impressive exam. Why don’t you write your dissertation on that subject? Let’s set up an appointment for you to come by, and we’ll talk about it,” said the professor to Nina after she completed a test.

Unfortunately, the up-and-coming mathematician was unable to take in and enjoy the compliment. Rather her head was full of thoughts such as “What a nice man, and he asked me such easy test questions. That was a close call! Now I’ve got to make sure not to talk shop with him because then he’ll realize that I faked it. He’ll see right through me.” By the time Nina had finished going through her well-worn mental routine, she realized that there was no way she was going to accept her professor’s offer.

In spite of her brilliance on the examination, which required real mastery of the subject, she sees herself as a fraud. Psychologists call this the impostor phenomenon. Those who are afflicted believe that their successes cannot be attributed to their own abilities. Instead they are convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments are the result of charm, deception or simple good luck. Interestingly, such thoughts tend to surface in people—such as Nina—whose lives have been an apparently uninterrupted string of successes.

Many people have a tendency to blame external circumstances for their own accomplishments or failures. But those plagued with impostor thinking go well beyond this. They actually view themselves as swindlers who cheat their way into success without in any way having earned it. They live in constant terror of being exposed.

Recently researchers have been taking a closer look at the emotional characteristics of people plagued by such ideas. By better understanding how the impostor phenomenon differs from related mental states such as social anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, psychologists are learning how to help people recognize and dispel the troubling thought that they are nothing but phonies.

Feeling Like a Phony
The term “impostor phenomenon” was coined in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, both then at Georgia State University. Clance and Imes noticed that many of their students with excellent test scores and good grades admitted during counseling that they felt they did not belong at the school. Although these students were successful and accomplished, they expressed the idea that they had somehow conned their way into their current positions. They were astutely aware of their weaknesses and tended to overestimate the strengths and abilities of others. In their minds, they always failed to measure up—and they dreaded the day they would make a mistake and reveal to the world the grand illusion.

Clance and Imes described this impostor phenomenon in a 1978 paper, taking care not to call it a “syndrome” or a “disorder,” because it is not a debilitating medical condition. Still, such thinking can be persistently troubling for those who suffer from it, and it may even keep some people from fulfilling their potential or finding contentment.

In 1985, after further studying the associated feelings and ideas, Clance developed a questionnaire to help individuals determine if they show an impostorlike pattern of thinking. The test, widely used today by counselors and psychotherapists, covers the three main components of such thinking: feeling like a fake, discounting praise and achievements, and attributing successes to luck. The first component, feeling fake, is the core of impostordom. People feel that they have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes—that they are not really as smart, talented or hardworking as they have convinced everyone they are. The second facet is the inability to acknowledge praise or good performance, which means that even after working hard and achieving a goal, these so-called impostors will ignore the fact of their success and continue to focus on their perceived weaknesses. And finally, when faced with their own conspicuous achievements, sufferers will attribute their good fortune to chance or some other external factor rather than taking credit for it.

This last point deserves further elaboration. Whenever people think about who or what is responsible when something good or bad happens to them, they are practicing attribution—they ascribe the cause to a particular thing. According to psychologist Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, we all have a certain style of attribution that we tend to use to explain life events. This style of attribution consists of three dimensions: the reasons can lie either within or outside our own person (internal versus external); they may be lasting or transient (stable versus unstable); and they may apply to many situations or uniquely to a single situation (global versus specific).

Attribution style has frequently been associated with emotional health. Emotionally robust people tend to attribute positive events to internal, stable and global factors (“I’m just smart!”); in contrast, with negative occurrences they tend to cite unstable and specific factors (“bad luck this time!”). Depressive people, on the other hand, tend to exhibit the reverse pattern: they make themselves responsible for their failures but attribute their successes to luck.

People who fit the impostor phenomenon profile use this latter style of attribution, which raises an obvious question: Are they simply depressed? In 2002 psychologist Naijean S. Bernard, then at Southern Illinois University, and her co-workers gave Clance’s questionnaire to almost 200 students. The researchers found an association between impostor thinking and depression—a finding that has since been confirmed by numerous other studies.

But depression cannot entirely account for the impostor phenomenon—and neither can other related mental states. In 2001 psychologist Scott Ross of DePauw University found that people afflicted with the impostor phenomenon are in general more apt than others to feel ashamed for one reason or another. This tendency is coupled with a general increase in fearfulness, as psychologists Shamala Kumar and Carolyn Jagacinski found in 2006 after interviewing more than 130 students at Purdue University.

Fear and shame go hand in hand with disorders and traits such as social anxiety, neuroticism and low self-esteem, and many research groups have explored the relations between these feelings and impostordom. By administering Clance’s questionnaire to various groups of people alongside rigorous tests for social anxiety, neuroticism, low self-esteem and other related mental states, these researchers have determined that the impostor phenomenon seems to be a truly distinct experience. As expected, high scores on Clance’s test correlate with higher-than-normal scores on the surveys for social anxiety and low self-esteem—but no combination of these other psychological states can accurately identify people who report feeling like frauds or adequately describe their specific fear of having fooled the world.

A Female Affliction?
When Clance and Imes first described the impostor phenomenon, they suggested that women might be particularly susceptible to this type of thinking. But the data on gender differences remain inconclusive. Some studies have borne out the idea that women are especially vulnerable to ideas about being a sham, including research currently being conducted by psychologist Christine Roth of the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Roth has been looking at the distribution of the phenomenon among psychology students. Because psychology is a very competitive subject at the university, most of the students had already been quite successful in their studies—in other words, they met an important criterion for the impostor phenomenon. And in fact, the number of women in the group who reported impostor-related thinking was far larger than the number of women in the group without such feelings.

Some psychologists suggest that the phenomenon could be a possible contributing factor to the low number of women who achieve top positions in their fields. Although girls on average get better grades in school than boys, they may have a greater tendency to feel that those grades are undeserved. A Journal of General Internal Medicine study in 2008 of medical residents found that female residents scored higher, on average, on Clance’s questionnaire than did male residents. Other studies, however, have shown no gender difference in terms of the frequency or intensity of feeling like a counterfeit. For instance, a different study in 2008, from the Journal of Physician Assistant Education, found no gender difference in practicing physicians’ assistants’ likelihood of experiencing impostor thoughts and feelings.

A possible explanation for these murky results may be that people are more likely to experience impostor feelings at certain points in their lives—and rather than being a stable trait, such thinking waxes and wanes as an individual’s situation changes. According to Clance, now professor emerita at Georgia State University, the feeling of having conned everyone seems to appear for the first time at the end of high school or early in a person’s college career or professional life—a time at which even those who have become accustomed to success have to meet increased challenges. Those who seemed to sail through school and get good grades without really trying may, according to Clance, have failed to learn how to prepare appropriately for performance situations or to ascribe their success to their own ability.

It may seem impossible that people who have always performed at a high level can fail to believe in their own abilities, but that perspective may get stabilized within a closed thought loop. To ensure that their “failure” is not uncovered in a performance situation, such people may avail themselves of two seemingly opposite strategies: overdoing and underdoing. Overdoing involves disproportionate efforts such as studying and restudying material they have already mastered or obsessively preparing and practicing every detail of a short, routine presentation. This strategy certainly increases the likelihood of success. But it also springs a nasty trap: achievement seems to result not from their intrinsic abilities but from their Herculean preparations. And because they know that they will not always be able to match that effort, it strengthens the fear that their accomplishment may never be duplicated—and that eventually their “true” nature will be found out.

Underdoing looks somewhat different. Given a particular performance situation, a person will, for example, fail to prepare or prepare much too late, doing other, extraneous things instead. In the 1970s social psychologist Edward E. Jones dubbed this behavior “self-handicapping.” [For more on self-handicapping as it relates to perfectionism, see “Can You Be Too Perfect?,” by Emily Laber-Warren; Scientific American Mind, July/August 2009.] When these underdoers perform well, despite putting obstacles in their own way by not studying or preparing, they ascribe their success to luck rather than their own ability. It was just a fluke. Thus, people who have an impostor mind-set who fall into the underdoing trap end up viewing the future as just as uncertain as those who overprepare.

Breaking the Pattern
How can this vicious cycle of impostor thinking be interrupted? Clance, who continues to work with sufferers as a psychotherapist, makes several recommendations. One central approach is to practice appropriate attribution: self-defined impostors must learn to ascribe their successes to their own abilities, to the extent justifiable. Although it is generally appropriate to say “I was successful because I worked hard,” the actual hard labor must itself be commensurate with the task at hand. Labor is not commensurate in overdoers, and therefore it is not useful for them to attribute success to the sweat of their efforts. Instead they should acknowledge the intelligence or skill that contributed to their success. And when things go wrong, people should cite factors that can be changed such as too little effort or an incorrect learning strategy.

There are other ways to disrupt impostor thinking and even to keep it from cropping up in the first place. One potential approach is to increase feelings of self-esteem, which simultaneously decreases fear and depression. For example, ponder the various facets of your personality, especially reflecting on your strengths, positive relationships with other people, and competence. Such introspective exercises have been shown to boost self-esteem, confidence and performance.

Research on the impostor phenomenon indicates that our conflicted student Nina is not alone. Some very successful people suffer from the feeling that they are frauds and that their successes are not a result of their own abilities. But as soon as they learn to recognize and appreciate their accomplishments, they will better be able to fulfill their potential, and they will likely find themselves enjoying a greatly renewed sense of personal worth.