Mind & Body

Impostor Syndrome Affects Men and Women Differently

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The feeling of being a fraud is probably an experience people have confronted since some inexperienced princeling found himself suddenly sitting on a throne. But in the 1970s, when psychology professor Pauline Rose Clance and her colleague Suzanne Imes first gave the feeling a name — impostor syndrome — the term was specifically feminine. Women, these scientists felt, were more likely to worry about being unmasked as incompetent. But recent research shows that not only do all types of people experience impostor syndrome, but men are actually hit hardest by its effects.

A Universal Feeling

Since Clance and Imes published their groundbreaking paper "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women," wherever scientists have looked for impostor syndrome, they've found it.

As Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy points out in her book "Presence," the experience has been documented in groups "including but not limited to teachers, accountants, physicians, physician assistants, nurses, engineering students, dental students, medical students, nursing students, pharmacy students, undergraduate entrepreneurs, high school students, people new to the Internet, African Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Canadians, disturbed adolescents, 'normal' adolescents, preadolescents, adult children of high achievers, people with eating disorders, people without eating disorders, people who have recently experienced failure, people who have recently experienced success ... and so on."

So basically everyone, including celebrities from Meryl Streep to Albert Einstein. Men, women, actors, physicists. Every type of successful person you can think of gets impostor syndrome. But just because everyone gets it doesn't mean it affects everyone the same way.

Battle of the Sexes

While impostor syndrome is definitely not a female phenomenon, new research suggests that there is a gender element to how people are affected by the experience. A team of American and German researchers recently found that when the pressure mounts and impostor syndrome really bites, it may be men who actually take the bigger hit to their performance.

To figure this out, the scientists recruited hundreds of U.S. undergrads and began by testing their level of impostor syndrome. Then, they made sure the students would have a truly miserable day. All the students first answered some GRE questions, and an unlucky half were then given fake feedback that they'd done horribly on the test, ramping up the pressure on this group.

How did the students respond? It depended on gender. Men with impostor syndrome tended to crumble under pressure much more than the women who suffered from the same feelings.

The "harsh feedback seemed to especially affect male students with high impostor feelings — they reported higher anxiety, made less effort (as measured by time taken on the task), and showed a trend towards poorer performance, as compared to others given positive feedback," reports the British Psychological Society Research Digest blog. "In contrast, female students with high imposter feelings responded to harsh feedback by increasing their effort and showing superior performance."

A follow-up study in which the researchers increased the stakes by telling students their performance would be shared with their professors produced similar results. Why do men with impostor syndrome seem to suffer worse consequences from it? The researchers aren't sure and admit their study is only exploratory, but they suggest that perhaps the difference has something to do with cultural norms that put less pressure on women to perform.

"Being less constrained by gender norm violations and backlash (i.e. they were already expected to perform poorly on competence-based tasks like exam questions), females [with impostor feelings] may have felt freer to attempt to improve their performance (and risk failure) rather than excusing it with lack of time or effort invested," they speculated.

But whatever the exact cause, the truth appears to be that impostor syndrome isn't a woman thing. In fact, guys should probably worry about it more. Thankfully, there's plenty both men and women can do to fight back against impostor syndrome.

We hope author Amy Cuddy doesn't experience impostor syndrome, because her book "Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges" is on a zillion bestseller lists. The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Impostor Syndrome: You're Doing Better Than You Think

Written by Jessica Stillman June 29, 2018

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