A discussion on impostor syndrome—the phenomenon of feeling like a fraud, despite all evidence to the contrary—seemed to strike a chord with many at the recent ScienceOnline conference. Social psychology has some ideas for combatting this supremely unhelpful complex, including one that I think sums up the beauty of this conference. ScienceOnline: the self-doubt vaccine.
Listening in on the ScienceOnline “unconference” (#scio13) and following a number of the write-ups and wrap-ups, I was struck by the outpouring of pure joy from participants before, during and after the event. I don’t know how many professional meetings are this life-affirming, but something special clearly went on within the science communication community over the first weekend in February.
One session that got me thinking was the Impostor Syndrome discussion, led by Eve Rickert and Christie Wilcox. This phenomenon is defined as an inability to internalize one’s achievements, which results in feeling less competent than the rest of the world believes you to be. Based on the tweets coming out of the room, the general reaction seemed to be a mix of A) relief that each was not alone in this self-doubt, and B) astonishment that many of the most admired and respected science writers among them fall victim to it, too.
The term impostor phenomenon was first used in a 1978 study concerning high-achieving women in academics. Since then, much of the research has continued to focus on women – although some men at the #scio13 session were quick to point out that guys are vulnerable too. Graduate and medical students are an afflicted population and women in academia, coming at it from two different angles, seem particularly prone. Nurses also appear frequently among the study titles, and one article even addressed “The imposter phenomenon in teachers and accountants”.
All manner of professionals, then, are susceptible to feeling they’ve got everyone fooled with their success and are on the verge of being “found out”. It’s reassuring to know you’re not alone, but the thing is that IS can keep you from succeeding. A promising writer who feels like a fake may not dare to pitch that great story; part of impostor syndrome is also having low expectations that you’ll be able to repeat your success in the future.
Nilanjana Dasgupta, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, observes that the less we feel we belong in a field, the less empowered we feel to succeed. Dasgupta proposes that feeling like a fraud, an impostor, stems from feeling that one doesn’t belong in a particular field of high achievement. Her research looks at this phenomenon particularly in disadvantaged groups, who are more often outnumbered in their field.
I wouldn’t say that when science writers feel some degree of impostor syndrome, it’s necessarily because of a failure to match a given stereotype. (After all, men, women, minorities, cheerleaders, former models, PhDs or not: they are all among the most popular science communicators). And yet, I recognized in the psychologist’s proposed solution what I sensed many people experienced at the famed ScienceOnline conference. She calls it the stereotype inoculation model. Using the metaphor of “social vaccines”, she proposes that when members of our own community already belong to the ingroup, they “inoculate and strengthen fellow group members’ self-concept”.
In STEM research fields, for instance, this means that more minorities and women in top positions would help vaccinate up-and-coming members of their own group against unfounded feelings of fraudulence. In the science communication arena, this could translate to realizing that members of your own world are already there: your science writing gods are, in fact, human. Or, as blogger Erin Podolak described her inner dialogue while conversing with Carl Zimmer, Ed Yong and David Dobbs simultaneously at ScienceOnline, “you can do this, they are just people, say words.”
The stereotype inoculation model makes predictions about who stands to benefit most from this social vaccine and in what context, and also suggests that it will be most effective if “perceivers feel a subjective sense of connection or identification” with the ingroup experts and peers. As to whether this element was present at ScienceOnline, I cite this video footage of conference attendees in the company of a giant dancing lemur.
Even watching “#scio13” from the outside, relating to the people I saw working and playing together, did something to boost my impostor immunity. To that I say: Here’s to more encounters like the welcoming-with-open-arms, leave-the-hierarchy-at-the-door ScienceOnline that allow us to keep each other vaccinated.
Next year, I hope to get my shot.
Tweets thanks to Eve Rickert, from her Storify “#SciO13: Impostor Syndrome”.
To find out more:
Storify of the #scio13 impostor syndrome session
Thoughts on the impostor complex, from Amy Shira Teitel
Diversity in Science Blog Carnival: IMPOSTER SYNDROME EDITION
“What Am I Doing Here?”, by Athene Donald
“Impostors, the Culture of Science, and Fulfilling Our Potential”, by Kate Clancy, on Scientific American