Neil Levy (Macquarie University), "Impostor syndrome and pretense"
Inquiry - An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 2022
Impostor syndrome and pretense
It’s hard to get any sort of reliable estimates of its prevalence, but impostor syndrome seems to be very widespread. Lots of people report feeling it, at least on occasion, and we might well suspect those who deny experiencing it of some sort of overcompensation.
When someone we know reports feeling like an impostor, we’re often in a good position to testify that the feeling is unjustified. But reassurance from a friend or colleague isn’t much help, because they’d probably reassure us anyway (and maybe those few people who would or do report your feeling is accurate are jerks who are no more reliable in their criticism than our friends are in their support). Sometimes, these feelings may be accurate: after all, emotions can give us insight otherwise unavailable to us. But very often they’re not, and it seems impossible to tell from the inside.
I argue that these feelings should not be given any significant weight, because they’re expectable accompaniments of occupying the sort of roles that give rise to them. This is an important project, because these feelings seem more prevalent among members of historically disadvantaged groups, so undermining their epistemic status might be a matter of justice.
Why do we feel like impostors? As a number of philosophers have emphasized, the feeling or belief that one’s success is importantly due to luck is always justified. You probably worked hard to get where you are, and you may be smarter than most, but for every person who succeeds (in landing that tenure-track job, say), there are dozens just as smart and who worked just as hard. You were lucky: your paper happened the catch the eye of a committee member, your mentor happened to have met another member at a conference, your parents encouraged you just that little bit more…. At the same time, as Slank emphasises, the culture of genius in philosophy encourages others to downplay how hard they worked, so it seems to you that you worked harder than your peers. They are effortlessly brilliant; you work your ass off.
Fake it till you make it
Other philosophers have emphasised that the person who experiences impostor syndrome has evidence that appears to support them in believing they are impostors. I argue that they have an additional reason to believe they’re faking it: they are faking it. We all are. Pretense is an unavoidable element of coming to occupy a professional role. Seeing the world as a philosopher, with the values and habitus of a philosopher, requires, first, role-playing being a philosopher.
Philosophy, and other professional roles worthy of the name, has goods and values that are internal to it as a practice. To say that they’re internal is not to say anything about their objective value; rather, it’s to say that they can only be properly grasped from inside the practice. It’s impossible fully to grasp them until one occupies the role. That puts the person who aims to see the world as a philosopher in a difficult position: she’s trying to acquire a perspective that has a value she can’t yet grasp.
Pretense is an important element in coming to inhabit the role. We bridge the gap between being a novice, who grasps practice-internal values and goods only indistinctly, and the expert by playing at being the expert. To become a philosopher, you need to comport yourself as a philosopher. You are, to some degree, an impostor: you’re pretending to skills and values you don’t yet have, in order to come to have them. Pretense is, as Agnes Callard says, proleptic: it projects one into the future in order to realize it. To some degree, we may remain pretenders for much of our career: we may always be trying, by faking it, to grasp values more fully. It’s likely, though, that pretense falls away slowly, so that by mid-career our reality matches the experience more fully.
Impostor syndrome arises when people become aware of the extent to which they’re faking it. If I’m right, we’re all faking it, to some degree. But some of us are more likely to be conscious of the fakery than others. This account may help explain why impostor syndrome is associated especially with members of historically disadvantaged group, and also why the empirical evidence doesn’t support the association. Members of historically disadvantaged groups don’t engage in more fakery than anyone else (except, perhaps, to the extent that the trappings of academia – meals at conferences and chit chat during breaks – reflect middle class practices they may not have grown up with). But they’re more likely to be made self-conscious, and self-consciousness might make them more likely to notice their pretense.
There’s some evidence that people who work in fields where they’re a minority are more vulnerable to impostor syndrome. That’s not surprising: those kinds of conditions are more likely to make the person self-conscious, and self-consciousness makes it more likely they’ll notice their pretense. Katherine Hawley suggested that awareness that others see one as a potential beneficiary of affirmative action policies might also trigger impostor syndrome: again, the causal route might run through self-consciousness. Anything that makes people pay attention to their comportment makes them painfully aware of their pretense: since they can see it in themselves, but they can’t see it in others, they have evidence they’re impostors whereas others aren’t.
This hypothesis also explains why the empirical evidence hasn’t supported the claim that impostor syndrome is more likely to occur for members of some groups than others. These studies ask people whether they experience impostor syndrome: they make people attend to their comportment and therefore notice their pretense. My suggestion is that in the absence of such prompting, members of disadvantaged groups are more likely to experience impostor syndrome, because they’re more likely to be brought to be self-conscious. An experience-sampling methodology could be used to test whether prevalence truly differs.
Impostor syndrome reflects our reality: we’re all impostors to some degree. It’s mistaken only when someone concludes, on the basis of awareness of their pretense, that they’re faking it to a greater degree than others. Getting out the news that we’re all fakers might help to undercut the evidence that is generated when we become aware of our pretense. To the extent that impostor syndrome affects members of disadvantaged groups more than others, that might be a matter of justice.
Thanks for reading New Work in Philosophy! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.