Impostor Syndrome as skill/dominance mismatch

by Viliam2 min read5th Nov 202010 comments

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I am surprised that there is nothing about Impostor Syndrome on Robin Hanson's website, when to me it seems obviously connected to status. To use the standard formula: Impostor Syndrome is not about lack of skills.

(Also related to: humility, status regulation, unpopularity of nerds.)

Let me quote my older article:

Robin Hanson calls the two basic forms of status "dominance" and "prestige"; the fear-based and the admiration-based sources of social power respectively. He also notes how people high in "dominance" prefer to be perceived as (also) high in "prestige" [1, 2]. Simply said, a brutal dictator often wants to be praised as kind and smart and skilled (e.g. the "coryphaeus of science" Stalin), not merely powerful and dangerous.

[...] If you are not ready to challenge the chieftain for the leadership of the tribe, and if you don't want to risk being perceived as such, the safe behavior is to also downplay your skills as a hunter.

Although humans have two mechanisms of constructing social hierarchies, at the end of the day both of them compete for the same resource: power over people. Thus we see powerful people leveraging their power to also get acknowledged as artists or scientists; and successful artists or scientists leveraging their popularity to express political opinions.

The hierarchy of "dominance" is based on strength, but is not strength alone. The strongest chimp in the tribe can be defeated if the second-strongest and third-strongest join against him. Civilization makes it even more complicated. Stalin wasn't the physically strongest man in the entire Soviet Union.

(In theory, the most powerful person shouldn't need physical strength at all, if they have an army and secret police at command. But in practice, I suppose our instincts demand it; a physically weak leader would probably be a permanent magnet for rebellions. Therefore leaders flaunt their health and strength.)

Similarly, the hierarchy of "prestige" is based on skill, but is not skill alone. The most skilled person can be... what? Outskilled by a coalition of opponents? Nah, sounds like too much work. It is easier to stop them flaunting their skill, either by taking away their tools, or by threatening to break their arms and legs if you see them performing publicly again.

Which makes the prestige ladder a mixed one. To get on the top, you need a combination of superior skill and at least average dominance. If you are 10 at skill and 2 at dominance, you will probably be bullied into submission by someone who is 9 at skill and 7 at dominance. (Remember that dominance is not only physical strength; it also includes social power. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but Twitter can ruin your life.) No one applauds a talent who was too afraid to get on the stage.

What are you supposed to do then, if you happen to be 10 at skill and 2 at dominance, and your neighbor is 9 at skill and 7 at dominance and looks pissed off when you are around? Well, if you value your life, but can't increase your dominance, the solution is to downplay your skill and pretend to be at most 8; maybe even less just to be safe.

How is this all related to the Impostor Syndrome?

I suspect that Impostor Syndrome is simply an instinctive reaction to noticing that your skills are disproportionally high compared to your relative dominance at the workplace. This needs to stop, now! The most reliable way to convince others of your incompetence is to convince yourself. So you notice some imperfection of yourself or your work, and you exaggerate it in your mind until you feel like a complete idiot. Except you still have the prestigious job title, so now you fear you might be punished for that.

What predictions does this model make?

People with Impostor Syndrome are on average physically weaker or less popular or coming from less privileged backgrounds than people who feel like true masters (controlling for the actual level of skill).

Therapy based on "look, according to evidence X, you are really skilled" and "hey, nobody is perfect" will not work, unless it accidentally stumbles on something that makes the patient feel stronger or more popular. On the other hand, weightlifting will reduce the Impostor Syndrome, despite having no relation to the disputed skill.

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Your second prediction isn't unique to this model. The first is more novel, but I'm not sure how you'd measure it in a consistent way.

Also, ISTM your model is saying that the function of Impostor Syndrome is to lower self-perception of competence in order to lower other-perception of confidence... but this seems to be contradicted in practice by the amount of time people with impostor syndrome spend working on improving their competence.

Do people exist who downplay their competence to avoid over-claiming status? Of course! But we don't usually call this impostor syndrome. We might describe it as a lack of confidence or fear of speaking up. The thing that such people want to change (if they want to change) is to increase their confidence.

In contrast, the thing that I usually call "impostor syndrome" is when a person, despite evidence to the contrary, perceives themselves as being fake or inferior compared to the "real" authorities of the applicable field. Like an author who has written books, but doesn't feel they are a "real author" yet because they haven't met hurdles X, Y, or Z... only to discover that upon reaching those hurdles (e.g. a major publishing contract), they still don't "feel" like a "real" author, and then, say, decide they need a bestseller.

I don't see how to fit this type of impostor syndrome within your model, though. While you could argue that the goal of the behavior is to keep the person forever dangling the next carrot in front of themselves (i.e. always maintaining low perceived competence), modeling this in terms of a dominance hierarchy makes no sense to me. The author isn't worried that other authors are going to beat him or her up for daring to compete, otherwise it would make absolutely no sense for them to keep going after bigger and better accomplishments!

If anything, you could argue that it's somebody seeking a particular level of status, but then not being able to take in the feedback that tells them they've reached it, or are miscalibrated as to what feedback they should be getting for that accomplishment. So they conclude that the goal is insufficient and advance to the next level of status target(s). (So it's definitely not an attempt to avoid status competition!)

Of course, this is just one possible definition of "impostor syndrome", and I imagine that others can exist, but this particular type is the one I help people with the most, so it's what I tend to think of when somebody says something about impostor syndrome.

There is a saying that courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the ability to continue despite fear. In that sense, the difference between the person who was afraid to speak up, and the person who gave a lecture and then went home secretly feeling like a complete fake, was perhaps just a different reaction to their fear (or maybe the latter was less afraid), but in both cases there was a skill/dominance mismatch.

If you believe that if you speak up you will get punched, that gives you two options: (a) shut up; (b) speak up anyway... and then spend the next days waiting for the punch to come.

(This would of course assume that people with Impostor Syndrome are systematically miscalibrated about the actual probability of getting punched. The obvious question is why; and I don't have an answer ready.)

the amount of time people with impostor syndrome spend working on improving their competence

If you succeed to convince yourself that your problem is lack of skill, then working on improving your skill is a rational reaction (given your beliefs), isn't it?

Or maybe the causality is the other way round. People who habitually work on improving their competence are more likely to get into the Impostor situation (and then they continue doing what they always did).

you could argue that it's somebody seeking a particular level of status, but then not being able to take in the feedback that tells them they've reached it, or are miscalibrated as to what feedback they should be getting for that accomplishment.

Sounds plausible to me, except for that "seeking a level of status" part. At least for me, from inside, it feels like I am "trying to achieve X", not "trying to achieve the level of status belonging to X". When writing a book, I want to see the book made. When learning a programming language, I want to feel fluent in using that language. And yes, this all may be unconsciously motivated by status seeking, but consciously I am trying to accomplish "X". The status consideration perhaps comes into consciousness afterwards: "hey, I have achieved X, I wonder why people are not treating me like 'the person who achieved X'?"

Maybe I am confused about this, and putting different behaviors in the same basket. At least two: when others are giving positive feedback but the person believes they are wrong; and when others are giving mixed feedback and the person becomes convinced that those giving negative feedback are right. I think that in the former case, the person still imagines someone giving them the "deserved" negative feedback. (A hypothetical omniscient observer who knows the person is fake. Probably an internalized parent.)

So, to distinguish types of impostor syndrome, I'll refer to the type I typically work with as "unfulfilled ambition". I feel comfortable saying that its cause is a pre-existing self-definition of being unworthy as a person, with the ambitions being driven by a desire to fix or eliminate this unworthiness.

Why? Because altering the perception of unworthiness fixes the problem, as one is no longer seeking the validation that the goals cannot provide. Afterward, people either change goals or enjoy them for what they are, instead of seeking them to fix the hole inside themselves where self-worth was supposed to be.

This is not consistent with the predictions of your model, AFAICT. You hypothesize that impostor syndrome is about altering perceived competence, but people with unfulfilled ambition do not have an inaccurate assessment of their competence. The hypothetical author doesn't believe themselves incapable of writing a book, but rather they seem themselves as a non-author who managed to get a book published. A "real" author would have accomplished more, they think.

While it's true that they are always comparing themselves unfavorably to those who have greater skill, they are not confused as to what their actual skill is. Your model, if I understand it correctly, claims that the author should not keep trying to status climb, since the purpose is to avoid the threat of status claims.

If you succeed to convince yourself that your problem is lack of skill, then working on improving your skill is a rational reaction (given your beliefs), isn't it?

Or maybe the causality is the other way round. People who habitually work on improving their competence are more likely to get into the Impostor situation (and then they continue doing what they always did).

IIUC, you're now contradicting the major premise of your article: that the function of impostor syndrome is to avoid apparent status competition by appearing too competent. So unless you explicitly exclude unfulfilled ambition-style impostor syndrome from your model, ISTM to be a direct refutation of the premise.

A second type of impostor syndrome that's been brought up by others in the thread is "people make a big deal of my skill that I consider modest or unworthy of such praise", which seems functionally more similar to unfulfilled ambition than to the model your article describes. Again, the person experiencing the syndrome does not misperceive their skill, but doesn't consider it to be terribly important.

Why doesn't this match your model? Let's look at a counter-example: using one's competence to claim higher status. Consider the stereotype of the arrogant engineer who believes they know everything, rebelling against the "suits" -- who are likely taller, physically stronger, and far more socially dominant.

If your model were predictive, this should not be possible, or at least not common enough to be a stereotype. The arrogant engineer probably has actually been personally beaten up by people like the people they are going against! Your model predicts that this person should be downplaying their competence, not using it as a weapon.

Next, let us contrast your model with a simpler one: "people can be differently-calibrated regarding what competence levels equate to a role/identity, or a particular level of status". This model elegantly predicts the existence of all the subtypes of impostor syndrome that have to date been reported in this thread, and includes the possibility of overestimation by the arrogant engineer.

Finally, the one category of behavior people have that seems to match your model -- downplaying one's skills so as not to appear arrogant -- is generally not referred to as impostor syndrome. People who are trying not to appear arrogant, out of modesty or lack of confidence, do not generally describe themselves as feeling like an impostor or fake. In order to feel like an impostor or fake from the inside, some kind of dissonance is required between an inside view and an outside view.

That is, I cannot view myself as a "fake" unless I have some concept of what would be "real", in order to experience a discrepancy between the two. In each subtype of impostor syndrome, the two things being compared are different (e.g. whether I "feel like" an author, or whether people's amount of praise feels "appropriate"), but the concept is the same: there is a dissonant comparison.

IOW, I contend that people who are actually experiencing a desire to downplay competence to avoid status competition are highly unlikely to call what they are experiencing "impostor syndrome" or "feeling like a fake". And conversely, that people who do describe their experiences as feeling like a fake or impostor, are highly unlikely to be downplaying their competence to avoid status competition. (vs. merely feeling their competence to be overrated or their status to be under-validated.)

To define an experimental model, I mean that if you take those groups of people, and then determine what exactly is going on in their heads -- by fixing it -- then you could experimentally show that the experience of "fakeness" requires contrasting status perceptions, while downplaying one's competence does not imply an experience of "fakeness".

That is, I don't think that the thing you have described in this article can be meaningfully labeled "impostor syndrome", and that actual people experiencing the thing you have described would be much more likely to self-label as "being modest" or "lacking confidence" or something similar, rather than impostor syndrome.

(This is further supported by the number of people in the comments who have experienced one form of impostor syndrome or another, being confused by your model.)

I would suggest renaming your model and adjusting its explanation accordingly.

Apparently you put more thought into this than I did... and I do not wish to spend the amount of time necessary to provide a competent answer. So I am going to assume that you are right, any maybe I will think about it more deeply later.

One more thought: after finishing the article, when I didn't want to edit it anymore, I also got the idea that "mansplaining" (in its motte meaning, when technically a woman can also do it, but in practice men are more likely to) is the reverse mismatch, when one's dominance exceeds their actual skill. Or rather that "mansplaining" is the reverse of impostor syndrome. Does any of this sound plausible to you?

So interesting that I thought you were going to go the opposite direction at the end. I have felt slight amounts of imposter syndrome before, and it came from feeling like a well-liked and well-respected person whose skills did not fully back up my reputation. So, I was high on the social hierarchy but I perceived it coming from dominance and not prestige.

I was also surprised. Having spoken to a few people with crippling impostor syndrome, the summary seemed to be "people think I'm smart/skilled, but it's not Actually True." 

I think the claim in the article is they're still in the game when saying that, just another round of downplaying themselves? This becomes really hard to falsify (like internalized misogyny) even if true, so I appreciate the predictions at the end.

I suppose the same situation can be described using different words, so it is difficult to argue what is the correct framing. (I still think this is falsifiable in principle, e.g. by measuring the serotonin levels, but no one probably did that.) To me, this sounds like "people treat me better than I deserve", which means "I don't deserve to be treated well", which is kinda the thing I am pointing towards.

And yeah, the predictions are there to make something sufficiently non-ambiguous. Actually, only the prediction with weightlifting is like that, because what "makes the patient feel stronger or more popular" is also debatable.

Yes. I think it could also go the other way around: one can come from a privileged background which gives them a 8-10 dominance, yet they lack in skill. However, I believe this is not a sustainable scenario. Or is it? 

If Adam is a 10 in dominance but a 7 in skill*, he probably has what he needs to stay on top but he may feel like an imposter if he compares himself to Bob (6 dominance, 10 skill).  Adam is skilled enough to understand that Bob is better in certain ways.

*Whatever these numbers mean.  This model is for illustration only.

Alternate explanation: people who are capable of believing they are good at a thing will eventually stop trying to improve, while people who are stuck perceiving themselves as unacceptably bad at X will continue working to get better.