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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Impostor syndrome viewed through the lens of social theory

Sociologists like to use performance as a metaphor for everyday life. Erving Goffman in particular championed the metaphor, bringing to light how our social interactions take place on various stages according to various scripts. And when people don't follow the right script on the right stage, social punishment ensues (e.g. stigma).

Pierre Bourdieu rather similarly described social interactions as taking place in arenas, seeing them more like games than plays. (Sometimes champs is translated as 'field' rather than arena; it's worth noting Bourdieu intended for it to have a connation of sport/war.) Rather than a script, people get a sense for the rules of the game. And when people don't follow the rules of the game, social punishment ensues.

Whether one is failing at a social game or performance, social punishment can take many forms. For example, sexual harassment is most reported by those who go against gender roles. Powerful women are more likely to be harassed than less powerful women. Women in male-dominated fields are more likely to be harassed. Men who are effeminate, gay, or champions of feminism, are more likely to be harassed. Harassers act to keep people "in their place".

Since not following the script/game is costly for individuals, we're trained from a young age to be on the lookout for cues about what stage/arena we're on and what role we should be playing. Looking for and responding to cues is something we do automatically most of the time. Kahneman would see it as an example of System 1 thinking.

Impostor syndrome is the sense that you're the wrong person to be playing the role you're in. You're acting a role that you've been trained in and hired for -- but your brain is picking up on cues that signal that you're not right for the role.

The Caltech Counselling Centre has this to say on "who is likely to have the impostor syndrome?":
Attitudes, beliefs, direct or indirect messages that we received from our parents or from other significant people in our lives early on may have contributed to the development of impostor feelings. Certain family situations and dynamics tend to contribute to impostor feelings: when the success and career aspirations conflicts with the family expectations of the gender, race, religion, or age of the person, families who impose unrealistic standards, families who are very critical, and families who are ridden with conflict and anger.

Some researchers identify two main types of family dynamics that can contribute to impostor feelings, although there may be others.

Family Labels:  Different children in a family may be identified or labeled differently.  For example, some families have one "intelligent" child and one "sensitive" child.  While growing up, many times families will not change their perception of each child, no matter what that child does.  Therefore, the sensitive child, even if she gets better grades or more awards may not be recognized for her intelligence.  This can lead to doubting her intelligence and believing the family is correct even with evidence, which contradicts these labels. 

The sensitive child in this example has been raised to play the script of the sensitive child. When they go on to play other roles, they still sometimes encounter social cues indicating they're in the wrong role. Impostor syndrome results.

Impostor syndrome is thought to be quite common amongst women in science. In this light I don't think it's surprising: there are so many cues in society that we are not what a 'scientist' is supposed to look or act like. We don't fit the stereotypes. Many female scientists were raised to be that sensitive child.

I started reading about impostor syndrome when I was asked if I had any ideas on whether Impostor Syndrome is a recent phenomenon in society. The syndrome was first termed in the 70s, but sociologists and psychologists had described similar things well before then.

I would expect its prevalence is a relatively recent phenomenon. In "the good old days" people had extremely rigid options for what roles they could have in society. Women had few if any career options. There was little social mobility. Non-white people had even less social mobility. Most people followed a career trajectory sculpted by their parents -- not by themselves. And so, people had a script determined for them. Relatively few people had the ability to deviate from it successfully. They could only play roles that had been assigned to them.

In modern society, most of us have the privilege of picking the roles we want to play. Regardless of whether we were raised to fit the role, or look like the stereotype. I don't think people with impostor syndrome are crazy: I think they're picking up on cues that they're not in a role they were created to be in.

Reflecting on the times I've experienced impostor syndrome, they were situations where I didn't look the part (too young, too female). Or they were situations that I hadn't been raised to fit into -- I was raised to be nerdy/geeky. I feel like an impostor at the gym, and I definitely felt like an impostor when I taught a fencing class many years ago.

I don't have a magic answer for getting over impostor syndrome, and the link between social cues and impostor syndrome stands only as a hypothesis at this point. But I do think we impostors are necessary to subvert social scripts. Just because you don't look the stereotype or were raised to do doesn't mean you can't, and hopefully that won't stop you.


Berdahl, J. 2013. Testimony on Sexual Harassment to the Canadian House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women.
Bourdieu, P. 1979. La distinction.
Caltech Counselling Center. The Impostor Syndrome.
Goffman, E. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking Fast and Slow.

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